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How to Cope With Another Socially Isolated Winter

These research-based coping strategies help combat social isolation.

Key points

  • The perception that support is available if needed is what really matters for reducing the negative effects of stress.
  • Perceived social support increased sleep quality and decreased the risk of depression during quarantine.
  • When groups of people pool their resources to deal with stress and uncertainty, they can have more success than when going it alone.
  • Think of challenges as problems you share with others. Reach out for help and make a plan that include the resources and generosity of others.
Free-Photos/Pixabay
Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

The U.S. is entering yet another winter of social distancing and isolation. Do you feel like you’ve used up your coping strategies and are out of ideas? Here are a few new ones to try, backed by recent research.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel of researchers who studied communication and relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were asked to speak about what we had learned about social isolation during the pandemic. A couple of themes stood out that explain why the pandemic has been so hard on people and their relationships and how we can cope effectively moving forward, especially with another winter of social distancing ahead:

Social isolation is dangerous.

A topic of great concern before the COVID-19 pandemic was the increasing social isolation of Americans. Research since the start of COVID-19 indicates that social isolation has only gotten worse. In a recent keynote address for the International Association of Relationship Researchers, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad noted that the human suffering ramifications of COVID-19 go far beyond the death toll.

A lack of social connection is linked to increased risk of suicide, domestic violence, earlier death, cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, addiction, cognitive decline, dementia/Alzheimer’s, lower quality of work, and lower productivity. Those at the highest risk of loneliness include people on both ends of the age spectrum (young people and older people), people who live alone, people with lower income, and those who have chronic health conditions. However, and especially in the days of COVID-19, everyone is at risk.

Perceived social support is key.

When it comes to support, something we have all needed over the last 18 months, the perception that support is available if needed is what really matters. Not whether neighbors really pitched in and brought food or whether parents came by to help watch the kids… but whether people think they have support available if they need it. Research on social support had already shown this to be true, but COVID-19-specific research adds to the evidence that perceived support is king.

For example, a study led by Dr. Ian Grey (Grey et al., 2020) showed that perceived social support was related to reduced depression, anxiety, irritability, and loneliness during quarantine. A second study by Killgore and colleagues (2020) found that in the first few weeks of lockdowns, U.S. adults who reported they perceived more social support from family, friends, and significant others also reported higher resilience than those with less perceived social support.

Because perceived social support is what really matters here, we can help our family and friends by letting them know we are there for them if they need us. We can help ourselves by being mindful of the various sources of support available to us. People should think broadly about support—not just who could drop everything and help in an emergency, but who can cheer us up, give us advice, connect us to resources if we need them, and provide us with tangible help (things like money, housing, and food). Think of family and friends but also broader community resources like the people you know at your gym, church, or community center. According to the research, the more potential support we are aware of, the better.

Cope communally.

The pandemic was unique in that nearly everyone was coping with the “same” problem at the same time. Although we all experienced the pandemic differently depending on whether we lost loved ones, our work situation, etc., there is quite a bit of overlap in the experiences of people during the pandemic. Because the experience was shared, a unique type of coping is available: communal coping.

Chances are, you engaged in communal coping, at least at the start of the pandemic, whether you knew it or not. Communal coping occurs when people see a problem as “our” problem and “our” responsibility instead of your problem or my problem. It is a way of viewing the problem as something people are facing together instead of separately. When groups of people pool their resources to deal with stress and uncertainty, they can have more success than when going it alone. Communal coping results in a sense of security, resilience, and efficacy, which can buffer or mitigate the effects of stress.

Communal coping is certainly something people should draw on this winter as COVID fatigue has solidly set in. There are two parts to communal coping that might help you understand how to use it: shared appraisal and joint action (Afifi et al., 2020). Shared appraisal is all about seeing the problem differently. When people see the problem as collectively owned (i.e., “ours” and not “mine”), the appraisal is shared. Joint action refers to engaging in behaviors that reduce the negative impact of the stress or challenge together.

A benefit of COVID-19 as a challenge or stressor is that it is easy to see the larger stressor (COVID) as a shared problem. The everyday challenges caused by COVID-19 might be harder to view as shared (e.g., I am conducting meetings from my bedroom; my child is home from school because one of her classmates has COVID). If people can see these problems as shared and work proactively toward a solution with others, they may feel better and be more effective at dealing with these issues.

How to transition to a communal coping frame of mind? Communal coping is interactive at its core. That means it must be done in coordination with others.

Talk to your loved ones about the problems you are facing. Use language like “our” and “we” and encourage them to do the same. Recent research has shown that voicing complaints during COVID-19 was associated with less distress compared to people who buried their grievances (Luscombe, 2021).

Reach out for help and make joint action plans that include the resources and generosity of others. If you feel you’ve overutilized your social network for help, consider reaching out to the next “layer” of your network (e.g., community rather than friends and family) or hiring someone to help.

References

Afifi, T. D., Basinger, E. D., & Kam, J. A. (2020). The extended theoretical model of communal coping: Understanding the properties and functionality of communal coping. Journal of Communication, 70(3), 424-446.

Holt-Lundstad, J. (2021, September). Keynote address. International Association of Relationship Researchers.

Luscombe, B. (2021, July 6). What We Learned About Relationships During the Pandemic. TIME. Retrieved from: https://time.com/6076596/relationship-lessons-during-covid-19/

Grey, I., Arora, T., Thomas, J., Saneh, A., Tohme, P., & Abi-Habib, R. (2020). The role of perceived social support on depression and sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry research, 293, 113452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113452

Killgore, W. D., Taylor, E. C., Cloonan, S. A., & Dailey, N. S. (2020). Psychological resilience during the COVID-19 lockdown. Psychiatry research, 291, 113216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113216

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