Social distancing, limiting our physical interactions with others, is one of the most important ways we can keep ourselves and others safe during the pandemic. Most of us find the inability to hang out with friends and family a hardship. That’s natural. People are by nature “pack animals” who are wired to interact with others.
I read recently that the average person makes 12 physical social interactions a day. “Social” doesn’t mean only our interactions with friends and family. It includes talking to a bank teller or the mail carrier as well as time spent on the job or with people we care about. It’s not surprising that the total varies by age. The very young and very old have fewer. The teen years through retirement age are higher. But whatever the age, having contact with other human beings is what makes us and keeps us, well, human.
Social distancing at this point in time is a necessary evil. The coronavirus (COVID 19) spreads through contact between people. A person who is infected but not symptomatic can unknowingly infect as many as 12 other people per day just by going about life as usual. If infected, each of those people can infect 12 more and so on and so on. Think about it: One infected person can start a chain reaction that touches hundreds of people. That’s why social distancing is essential for now.
Staying Connected When Physically Distant
Social Distancing doesn’t have to mean being socially distant. There are other ways besides meetings up close and personal that can help us stay connected. Some require a phone or computer, some only require willingness to get out of your comfort zone to do something new. They may not feel as satisfying but they will do while we cooperate with each other to keep us all safe.
Conversations: Conversations over a back fence are a time-honored way that people have stayed in touch without touching. Pick up the phone and have a real conversation instead of just texting. Tone of voice and immediate verbal responses are richer than written words and emojis. Call someone. Encourage more real conversations with the people you live with. Instead of going to your individual devices, talk about well, anything, over a meal or after dinner for a while.
Making music and art: In city neighborhoods in Italy, neighbors are singing and playing music with each other from windows and balconies. A ukulele musician in my town set up a mic and speakers in front of the senior housing complex and started playing 50s and 60s dance music. Within minutes, people were on their balconies and on the lawn (keeping safe distances) and dancing! Musicians I know are playing together through sites like Zoom. I got to know a neighbor who lives in an apartment building across the street because I was practicing my autoharp on my front porch. We’re trading folk music requests with a shout and a wave.
Tune into live streaming sites to experience the arts. Artists are sharing their art. Filmmakers are sharing their movies. Celebrities are reading books for children.
Social Media: Kids who use social media are ahead of many adults in ease using it. Yes, sometimes it is overused and abused. Cyberbullying and attacks by trolls are real things. But often enough, the contact kids make with each other through social media platforms are just ways to stay in touch with each other. Used well, social media can help us maintain connections with the world and each other.
Messaging: Facebook is used by so many people these days that jumping on Messenger is a way to stay in touch that is simple. Friend those you are friends with and you have an immediate way to stay in touch.
The same is true of group message strings on your phone. My family started one on our phones long ago. We all add to it almost daily, sharing pictures and short messages. It keeps us in each other’s daily lives in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Snail mail and Email: Whether old fashioned letter writing with pen and paper or composing a lengthy email, letters can mean a great deal to both sender and receiver. Sitting down to write to someone requires imagining the receiver and thinking about your relationship with them, their interests, and what you want them to know about your life. Receiving a letter can be a special moment of togetherness.
Video Calls: Facetime lets people with iPhones, iPads, and Macs make easy video calls to one another. Google Duo works on Android phones. Other Free platforms are Skype, Google Hangout, ooVoo, AnyMeeting (free for up to 4 people), and Gotomeeting (free for up to 3 callers). You can arrange with friends to have dinner virtually “together”, to chat with your bestie over tea, or to see the grandkids or your friends and family who live next door or far away.
Create interest groups: Use those free sites to maintain (or start) membership in an interest group. Invite friends to join a virtual book club or a recipe exchange, or to share things you are doing to keep your kids happy at home. Find people who are interested in taking advantage of the same online museum tour or college course or exercise class and have a regular group discussion.
Mental Health concerns: Don’t forget about the self-help forums like ours. People from all over the world who are dealing with the same issues support each other with advice and encouraging words. PsychCentral now has over 250 support groups.
Establish a habit: Use the next couple of weeks of self-isolation to establish a positive habit. Research shows that it takes anywhere from three weeks to a year to make a lifestyle change, depending on the difficulty of the change. A simple change, like staying more hydrated or washing hands more frequently can be set in place in only a few weeks, but changing your diet to something that is consistently more healthy or sticking with a daily workout may take months.
Nevertheless, the next few weeks can be used to kick start an important change. It is more likely to stick if you find a buddy so you can support each other in your efforts. A daily phone chat about how you’re doing can both support your new habit and provide needed social connection.
Touch: Don’t forget the importance of human touch. When we are so isolated from many of our friends and family, it is especially important to make physical contact with the people we live with. Virginia Satir, one of the founding mothers of family therapy, used to say that it takes 12 hugs a day for people to thrive. That may feel excessive but she did have a point. Research has found that non-sexual human touch has enormous health and emotional benefits. Give each other a pat on the shoulder, a back rub, a stroke on the arm, and, yes, hugs. Sex with your intimate partner not only feels good but lowers stress and anxiety and contributes to your overall health.
Reach out and Touch Someone” was a 1970’s TV commercial by AT&T. It’s become a meme because it touched a nerve. To feel okay, we all need to touch and feel touched whether by physical contact or by virtual connection. The need for social distancing will eventually end but the habits we develop for supporting each other through a tough time don’t have to.