As social beings, our need for interactions with others is hardwired into us through eons of evolution. Social contact benefits us psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Social connection makes us feel more comfortable, more relaxed, and safer. Social support has been found to act as an essential buffer against stress.
Is there a more important time for us to stay connected socially than now when, due to the pandemic, we can’t go to work or school, we aren’t supposed to visit family or friends, and have to isolate ourselves in our homes from the outside world?
For many of us, the most meaningful social interactions we have are now mediated through a screen. Thankfully, technology allows us to stay “connected” even during self-quarantine. What a lifesaver for so many people; imagine if the pandemic had struck pre-internet. Now that is real isolation! Virtual happy hours, coffee klatches, and dating are reasonable facsimiles of social interactions, but they aren’t nearly as satisfying as the real thing. Social connection mediated through a screen is no replacement for real social connection, even if at a distance of 6 feet.
You may think it’s difficult to socialize with people with the “physical distancing” directive instructing us to stay apart, but it’s much easier than you think. Every time you leave your home, you have the opportunity to connect with others and allow others to connect with you. You can both give and receive support when we are all feeling isolated and disconnected. At a basic level, connecting helps us feel like we are still a part of something bigger than ourselves when we all can feel like it is us against the world (especially those who live alone).
Here’s what I suggest you do to create social connection and support for ourselves and others during this time of physical distancing. Start with a basic goal: “I’m going to connect with and support people whenever I leave the house.”
When you go for a walk, run, or bike ride, give a smile and say “hello” or “beautiful day” to everyone you pass (even if they have headphones on. BTW, if you usually wear headphones, try doing without them for the sake of social connection). I do this on my walks with our dog and on my morning runs and everyone always perks up and responds in kind (though some with an initial look of surprise).
When you’re in line outside the grocery store (an all-too-frequent sight these days), don’t just look around or stare at your phone. Instead, use that time as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the person next to you.
Start with something as simple as “How are you getting along with all this?” I can assure you that most people will respond with a smile, a breath of relief, and an eagerness to engage.
During these scary times, our natural reactions are to turn inward, circle our psychological and emotional wagons, and close ourselves off from others to protect ourselves from the invisible, yet potentially deadly, threat of COVID-19. But that is the worst thing to do, so please, do just the opposite. Reach out and connect with those around you. Show others that they are seen, heard, and met by you in this tragic and traumatic once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) moment. I can assure you that both you and they will be glad you did.