Why Is Social Distancing So Hard?

And five ways you can cope.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

A Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year suggested that adverse mental health conditions have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, survey respondents reported rates of anxiety three times higher and depression four times higher than the same time period in 2019 (Czeisler, 2020). While we don't know precisely why there has been such a rise in psychiatric symptoms, social isolation certainly isn't helping.

Humans are social creatures who crave connection with others. Beyond just being a natural desire, socialization and feelings of connectedness have long been known to play an important role in preventing and treating mental health disorders (Matthews, 2016; Werner-Seidler, 2017; Taylor, 2018). The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately made social distancing a necessity in order for us to protect ourselves and our loved ones. While we cannot get around this, there are some ways that we can mitigate the effects of social distancing on our mental health and feelings of loneliness:

1. Think “physical distancing," not social distancing. Perhaps what we consider “social distancing” could be better thought of as “physical distancing” because the close physical proximity is the real risk factor. There are ways to continue social interactions with physical distancing, for example, meeting outdoors with masks and appropriate physical distance, meeting through virtual platforms, or just talking over the phone.

These ways of socializing may not be the same, but they can still help. Make an effort to reach out to someone outside of your household every day. While long Skype or Zoom conversations may not always be possible, any form of connection can help: plan a virtual get together where you watch a movie or play a game with friends and family, set up a time to have virtual coffee or lunch with a coworker, or send a quick text message to a friend. 

2. Practice common humanity. Social distancing interferes with our ability to foster connections with others, which in turn means that it is more difficult to develop a sense of belonging. While we may not be able to identify with groups as easily during this period of isolation, we can still build that sense of belonging by practicing common humanity. Common humanity is one of the core components of self-compassion described by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. (Neff, 2011). She describes common humanity as an “acknowledgment of the interconnected nature of our lives.” 

We can practice common humanity by simply acknowledging that we aren’t alone in our loneliness and isolation, or considering how our sacrifices positively affect others by reducing the spread of disease. Although simple, recognizing these little connections to others can help us feel less alone despite physical distance. 

3. Emphasize the upsides of being alone. While many of us miss socializing, we can all probably also recall a time when we would rather have been alone. Perhaps we’ve experienced the feeling of being overwhelmed at a party, ignored during a group meeting, or exhausted after a long day of interviews. Thinking back to those situations, what would you have done when you finally had a moment to yourself? Would you have curled up in bed with a good book? Practiced some meditation? Just enjoyed the peace and quiet?

It’s easy to forget the pleasures of alone time when we have been alone for so long, but looking for opportunities to savor these moments even now can increase decrease feelings of loneliness and resentment.

4. Decrease self-criticism. One reason it’s hard for some of us to be alone? We are simply no fun to be around. Think about the last time you met someone who was critical, judgmental, and just downright rude. You probably didn’t look forward to spending much time with them. Well, your own self-talk is probably just as critical, if not more so!

Notice when you are engaged in negative or critical self-talk and acknowledge that those thoughts are not helpful. Choose to let them go and whenever possible, practice thinking neutral or even positive thoughts about yourself (even if you don’t believe them at first). 

5. Connect to something greater than yourself. Connecting to something bigger than yourself can help you feel less isolated. Many people think of religion or spirituality, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Connecting with something greater than yourself can simply mean doing something in service to others or working towards a greater goal. Perhaps you find yourself passionate about politics, creative pursuits, environmental issues, or helping others in some way. Dive into those passions as much as you can and connect (safely) with other like-minded people.

References

Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. 

Matthews T, Danese A, Wertz J, et al. Social isolation, loneliness and depression in young adulthood: a behavioural genetic analysis. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2016;51(3):339-348. doi:10.1007/s00127-016-1178-7

Werner-Seidler A, Afzali MH, Chapman C, Sunderland M, Slade T. The relationship between social support networks and depression in the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52(12):1463-1473. doi:10.1007/s00127-017-1440-7

Taylor HO, Taylor RJ, Nguyen AW, Chatters L. Social Isolation, Depression, and Psychological Distress Among Older Adults. J Aging Health. 2018;30(2):229-246. doi:10.1177/0898264316673511

Neff K. Self-Compassion. New York: HarperCollins; 2011.