Depression and social distancing

Here’s a term that’s spreading like wildfire, thanks to COVID-19: social distancing.

It’s something public health officials and experts are screaming around the world, an activity we as a human race typically don’t embrace -- staying away from another and remaining apart. Social distancing is the act of avoiding large gatherings, staying several feet away from the next person in the room, and most certainly not shaking hands, hugging or even fist bumping. 

As a species that thrives on social contact, this won’t be a welcome change to how we conduct daily life. But it’s a necessary change in these times, when we need to slow the spread of this virus, which has a chance of overwhelming our healthcare system and placing a lot of our vulnerable population under threat. 

We’re made to connect, after all -- humans thrive on human touch. Consider babies who are ill; they tend to get better, quicker, when held. People’s moods improve when they’re in the company of others. We cooperate better, communicate better, when we’re together. 

It’s why social distancing has the potential to disrupt lives, because of how it can impact us not only socially, but also psychologically. 

One of those impacts is  depression -- either exacerbating it, or bringing it on. 

Is social distancing the same as isolation? What are the effects?

Social distancing can mean maintaining a certain distance from another person -- it could mean that in grocery store aisles, keeping six feet apart is respectful and safe. But it can also mean being completely apart from others -- separate rooms, separate homes, separate cities. The point to social distancing, for the benefit of the entire human race, is to minimize the spread of the virus, which means that the farther apart we are from one another, for at minimum 14 days, the better.

But this kind of isolation increases the risk of several health issues, including heart disease, dementia and depression. As recently as 2015, research reported that isolation increases the mortality rate by almost 30%. 

Jules, a social media manager who’s worked from home since 2012, says that even for him, social distance is concerning.

“Working from home has meant I’ve had a different experience from others who are being asked to work from home now, because I’m used to seeing very few people in person on a regular basis,” he shares. 

“But what that means is that for me, socialization outside of work has always been really key. I like going to the gym, to the grocery store, really anywhere there are people, because I’m alone throughout the day and don’t have a water cooler group to hang out with at work.

“This need to maintain isolation means all that is shut off to me. It’s worrisome.”

Socialization is said to soften or even eliminate effects of stress; it’s why when people are struggling at work, they come together to vent. Having a friend close by means that frightening things are made less so (think about getting on a rollercoaster -- it’s easier with a friend, isn’t it?), and actually reduces the body’s response to stress.

Social distancing, then, could make things challenging for a typical person, but experts are concerned that for those who are already depressed, lonely or isolated, it’s going to get even worse. It could mean that they’re triggered and forced to spiral, or it could be that they’re triggered and pulled back into the habit of staying away from others. 

Is it all hopeless?

All this said, with so much media attention on social distancing, many people have made it a part of their vocabulary, and are talking about it. People are encouraging each other to take action, to remain connected in other ways, and not to discount virtual gatherings -- Skype calls, Zoom calls, FaceTime and other ways of communicating that don't require being physically there.

So no, it’s not all hopeless. 

Who’s at risk?

Anyone can be affected by loneliness, isolation and  depression, but older people are said to be more susceptible. Those who suddenly find themselves separated from loved ones who they typically see on a regular basis may also be impacted on a larger scale, as well as those who are chronically ill. Those who have impairments like hearing loss or vision loss may also have a harder time than those who don’t. 

Those most at risk are the ones who  already struggle with current mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, substance abuse or PTSD. 

What can be done?

The effects of social distancing can be minimized with the use of technology available to so many of us: texting. Email. Webcams. Chat. Online forums. 

“I’m using Zoom a lot more,” says Jules, “and utilizing voice notes on LinkedIn and using Facebook Messenger’s camera… I’m using everything I can so I feel like I’m with people. It’s not so eerie looking outside my apartment and not seeing a lot of commotion. It makes me feel like I’m with people right in my home office.”

Although technology doesn’t replace in-person interaction and communication, it’s better than not connecting with people at all. 

There’s also great benefit to participating in other activities while you’re chatting with a friend on the phone. Consider taking a 10- or 20-minute walk outside, around your block, or watch Netflix “together.” You may even want to set up a video call while you’re both making dinner, or while working out. 

What if it gets really bad?

If you’re suffering from depression and using technology to connect with others doesn’t seem to be helping, you may need assistance from a professional who’ll help you dive deeper -- and get you moving toward recovery.

Most therapists make themselves available online and through phone calls, so you need never feel alone. These online and phone chats are no less therapeutic or beneficial than in-person visits, and it’s so vital, especially now, to maintain and watch out for your mental health. 

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