How to stay social during isolation
Why staying connected is more important than ever
COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruption and mass anxiety on a global scale. Fear of scarcity has triggered panic buying, hoarding and other anti-social behaviours. Yet we need each other more now than we ever have.
Loneliness is something many people fear and right now you are likely facing, or experiencing, isolation from lockdown. Physically distancing yourself from other people is vital for both your health, and the health of the nation, but it is more important than ever, to stay socially connected. Self-isolation does not have to equal social isolation.
Research consistently shows that social interaction is vital to wellbeing and that social isolation negatively impacts mental health. Positive social support can reduce the risk of mental illness and provide a protective effect against stress.
Stress triggers the fight-or-flight instinct in your body, resulting in a rush of cortisol. Long term high cortisol levels can negatively impact immune function, blood pressure and blood glucose regulation.
Social connection on the other hand, triggers the release of the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin, which further triggers the release of serotonin. Serotonin activates the reward centre of your brain, producing feelings of happiness.
A lesser known physiological response to stress is the tend-and-befriend instinct. Research into this stress response demonstrates that tending to children or family members and affiliating with friends during times of stress, positively impacts immune function and mood. Seeking social connection and support produces a different hormonal reaction as opposed to the increase in cortisol levels that results from the fight-or-flight response.
Being aware of the tend-and-befriend response and actively moving towards it during times of immense stress may reduce biological impacts, improve resilience and provide opportunities for emotional development.
“Through affiliation with others in times of stress and the ability to draw on mental representations of relationships, people acquire the resources to explore and grow both emotionally and intellectually in environments that ensure social connection”. — Shelley E. Taylor
When face-to-face physical connection is not possible, we need to explore all the available avenues for staying socially connected, supporting our loved ones and maintaining a sense of community.
There is great comfort in the shared human experience and in knowing you are not alone in your struggles. If you start to feel anxious and depressed as a result of the COVID-19 response, don’t stay silent. Reach out to your support network. Social support can include such things as financial assistance, emotional support and shared resources. Just knowing you are valued and cared for can be comforting.
If you don’t have a strong support network, now is the time to build one. Search Facebook groups for like-minded people or reconnect online with friends from childhood and previous workplaces. Explore virtual fitness, business, meditation or artistic classes that have an online community you can access.
Ageing is associated with decreased functional connectivity between regions of the brain however studies demonstrate that older people with strong social networks maintain greater connectivity and cognitive function. People over the age of 70 are at the highest risk from COVID-19 and governments have taken necessary steps to isolate the elderly for their protection. Elderly people are less likely to be digitally connected so it’s important to be resourceful and creative in order to provide them with support.
Ways to stay connected and reach out;
· Phone a friend or relative everyday
· Make use of video call technology — Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime, to name a few
· Have virtual dinners and coffee dates with friends
· Celebrate birthdays and special occasions with phone or video sing-a-longs
· Set up a roster with neighbours to check in on the elderly in your local area
· Write letters to residents of a local aged care facility (kids can also draw pictures)
· Follow the TogetherAtHome hashtag and check out Couch Choir on Facebook
In times of stress, many people retreat within. Contemplative practices such as mindfulness and meditation are beneficial, however withdrawing from friends and family is not the answer. Staying virtually connected, supporting your tribe and reaching out to those most vulnerable could be the best thing, not only for your elderly neighbour, but also for your mental health. By knowing the potential negative impacts of isolation, you can take intentional steps to stay socially active and champion social connectivity within your networks.