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Stay Social While Engaging in Social Distancing

This is a stressful time. Expressing love and affection can help.

After reading endless information about the novel coronavirus, seeing your city shut down, and being asked to stay away from other people, you might be struggling to stay positive.

“I'm generally a happy person and I usually have lots of energy,” Monica* says. “Now I’m exhausted, I’m finding it hard to be optimistic, and I keep feeling like I have a fever. I’m not sick, but I don’t feel good.”

Monica lives alone. She doesn't have a cough, but she says that her temperature, though not technically in the range of a fever, is higher than normal. Without testing, she can't know whether she has contracted the virus. But if she hasn't, it is possible that her elevated temperature is from stress. Psychological stress can cause “functional hyperthermia.”

Stress isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Depending on one’s interpretation of stressors, it can be motivating and energizing. But the stress of unexpected negative situations can be depleting.

Needless to say, a pandemic is outside the usual range of circumstances with which we know how to psychologically cope. With "social distancing" (better described as "physical distancing") policies in place, being physically distant from others during this time is an additional stressor.

Staying socially connected is essential.

It is to be expected that many people will feel overwhelmed, moody, and fatigued. The stress of what we are dealing with right now could give rise to all kinds of physical and cognitive symptoms. These may include worrying, forgetfulness, inability to focus, low energy, headaches, stomach issues, changes in appetite, body aches, and insomnia.

Psychiatrist Samantha Boardman writes, “It’s strange endorsing social distancing when so much of our well-being depends on social connection.” Given the current necessity, however, she suggests frequent phone calls and online workarounds such as shared lunch breaks and holding happy hours on platforms like FaceTime and Skype—and she suggests talking about things other than the virus.

Loneliness can raise stress levels. How to maintain our well-being during a pandemic that requires physical distancing in the midst of a loneliness epidemic is a particular challenge. And right now, many people are lonely even when not alone. A happy marriage provides a feeling of safety and even has the effect of decreasing pain, both emotional and physical, but an unhappy marriage does not.

If you are in a relationship and living with your partner, you have some stress-reducing opportunities: Sex has immune benefits, and through a boost of oxytocin, makes it easier to fall asleep. Physical touch, even just holding hands, is a powerful stress-reducer. Kissing lowers stress. And hugging not only reduces stress, it both acts as a buffer for interpersonal conflict and strengthens the immune response.

If you and your partner are apart, just thinking about your partner can lower stress. And expressing feelings of affection can lower stress levels even faster. Highly affectionate people have an easier time with stress than do their less affectionate counterparts. People who express affection don’t produce as much stress hormone as those who are less expressive and their blood pressure is lower during moments of stress.

And unless you communicate your feelings to your partner, the benefit you get from thinking about that person isn’t shared. In order to confer health benefits to all those you love, express your affection—whether through words or actions. When your love is expressed, it can actually lower the other person's stress hormones. It can even affect their cholesterol and blood pressure. And it can strengthen your loved one's immune systems (something we could all use right now).

So don’t hold back. Connect by phone or online with those you can’t see in person and make sure they feel loved—this is especially important for your friends and family who live alone. Without kids, roommates, or a partner, they are deprived not only of physical contact but of all in-person social contact right now. During this time of physical distancing, make a point of reaching out to them.

And when this is over, give them a hug. ♦

Photo by Christopherap from FreeImages
Source: Photo by Christopherap from FreeImages

* Name changed to protect privacy

Pamela Paresky is a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago where she is teaching "Habits of a Free Mind: Psychology for Democracy." Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky