Staying Connected During Corona

It may help prevent you from getting sick.

Posted Apr 04, 2020

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Most of us have been stuck at home for what already seems like an interminably long time and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon. For some of us, that means spending most of our time alone; for others, it means spending a lot more time with people we may or may not want to be spending more time with. For almost all of us, it means not getting to spend time with the people in our lives who help us feel connected and a part of something bigger than ourselves, ranging from family members to dear friends to co-workers and even the barista who smiles and recognizes you by name when you pick up your morning coffee.

Resilient, inventive creatures that we are, people are coming up with all kinds of innovative ways to stay connected with those they care about but cannot spend direct time with. We held an online birthday party for my wife, sharing shrimp and champagne with her daughter and closest friends. People are holding book groups online and cocktail hours with friends and neighbors. They're catching up with old friends they haven’t talked to in years or decades, watching movies together online, and playing board games together. You name it, someone has figured a way to do it. Some more adventurous lovers, separated by distance, have delightfully discovered creative ways to keep their amorous flame alive.

While all of these creative stories about the ways people are finding ways to connect make great anecdotes to share with friends (online, of course), we may actually be underestimating the importance of staying connected. Staying connected to those we have caring relationships with may not only help us avoid going stir crazy; it may actually help keep us from getting sick.

Sheldon Cohen (1997) in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who had only 1-3 social ties in a period of two weeks (defined as a phone call or visit with a friend) were more than four times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to rhinovirus than those with six or more social ties during the same time period.

Staying connected with people lowers stress and increases immune system functioning. In a previous study by Cohen (1991), among those exposed to coronavirus 229E (a less deadly form than the current coronavirus), symptoms severity was related to stress, i.e. the more stress people experienced, the more stressed they were. A more recent study by Cohen (2003) found that people exposed to rhinovirus who described themselves as happy, pleased or relaxed had a 2.9 times lower risk of developing a cold.

On the other hand, we have known for a long time that loneliness is a significant health risk factor. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of early mortality as much as smoking cigarettes (Holt-Lunstead, et al., (2015). This is a double-edged sword because older people are both more at risk for isolation and loneliness and at more risk from the disease.

Of course, none of these approaches are meant to take the place of social distancing and all the other strategies that we know save lives. However, while you are out there having your online neighborhood dinner, virtual reunion with old friends, or web-based Monopoly game with your cousins, don’t let anyone tease you about not using your time productively. Remember, the life you save may be your own.

References

Cohen, S., Doyle, W., Turner, R., Alper, C. & Skoner, D. (2003) Psychosomatic Medicine, 655 (4), 652-657

Cohen, S., Doyle, W. & Skoner, D. (1997). Social Ties and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Journal of the American Medical Association, 277, (24), 1940-1944

Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D. & Smith, A. (1991) Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. New England Journal of Medicine, 325: 606-612

Hold-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-analytic Review. Perspective on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237.