The Problem with Social Distancing

This article has been coauthored by the psychologist Mora Zaharya, who can be reached at www.tratamientosonline.com 

Social distancing has become the new global norm to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Yet we must be careful with the words we use, as they have meanings that impact our emotions, thoughts and actions.  

Social Distance is Not Emotional Distance 

In actuality, what we need to engage in is not social distancing at all, but physical distancing. In this sense, we need to clarify that social distance is not emotional distance. As human beings, we are meant to be social; accordingly, we need to view our relationships as a matter of mental health during this confinement.  

Our Limitations are Physical, Not Emotional 

Through news and announcements, we are told over and over again to observe social distance as the main action to confront COVID-19. Yet we need to reach out for and take care of each other. We have physical limitations during this period, but they are not emotional limitations. During this worldwide quarantine, we need to engage in and rely on our relationships. 

We are now either alone or surrounded by our close family or in a couple situation or in assembled families or in various unthinkable circumstances. For many of us, our phone and online platforms have become our only window to connect with people outside our four walls. From our devices, we reach out for our work, colleagues, friends, children and parents. For others, we are able to see each other physically with meticulously choreographed guidelines that keep us safe while allowing more robust social connection. 

As the world outside is going through a major lockdown, we need to reopen our hearts, express our feelings and connect intimately with our loved ones. One of our primary motivations we must consider in our daily routine is the need to create meaning together. 

The Changing Needs of Relationships in a Pandemic 

During isolation, emotions expand and magnify. For this reason, among others, anxiety levels are, on average, three times higher than they were a year ago. Relationships must take these psychological changes during the pandemic into consideration. We are not just in the presence of the Covid pandemic; there is also a loneliness pandemic and a technology pandemic. We never thought we were going to use technology in these new ways to buffer physical isolation.  

If you spoke with your parents once per week, if you connected with your friends every Friday night or during an event, many of us may now need to shorten these periods in between connection. While physical connections may result in infection and diminish health, emotional connections are an inimitable means of expanding health and resources.  

Quarantine is full of uncertainties, but knowing that the people you love are there for you brings calm, lowers anxiety and strengthens mental health. It allows us to feel less lonely, to acknowledge the value of our feelings and relationships. Now is the time to learn how to be emotionally together while physically apart. It’s the time to express your love to the people you care about in an explicit and profound way; never have they so needed you to do so. 

Being Alone is a Physical State, Being Lonely is an Emotional State 

We are experiencing a major social recession, but it does not mean we isolate ourselves into loneliness.  Before the pandemic, many of us felt alone among the multitudes.  Now some of us are not lonely even though we are physically alone and not seeing each other.  

We need to take into consideration our resilience, which is the process of adjusting well to adversity, trauma, tragedy or stressful situations. One of the most important factors in resilience is having loving and supportive relationships within and outside our family. Many of us cannot undo our physical isolation, but we can forge emotional connections with the people we love.  

Moreover, we can give each other support and transform post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth. A theory developed in the mid 90s by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, two University of North Carolina psychologists, post-traumatic growth is the ability to achieve positive life changes after a traumatic event. Assimilating this concept gives us the opportunity to embrace it in our own experiences. 

Time for Change  

It’s time to connect with each other. Now is the moment to take care of our parents and others who have taken care of us for so many years. We have to consider and reach out to people we know are suffering. Sharing our feelings and emotions is a marvelous way to open up to each other, to lower anxiety and stress, to show vulnerability and to engage in profound and genuine relationships.  

The eye-opening corollary of loneliness is that there are so many people with whom we have come into contact for years and know nothing about. We don’t know how they feel, how they are handling the pandemic, how they are reconstructing their lives. We can transcend our comfort zone, reach out to some of them and deepen our social relationships. 

The ones who cope better are the ones who accept what is happening.  By accepting that you don’t control everything, you become more capable of engaging in mutual reliance and interdependence. You begin to realize how much we need each other. These types of thoughts and actions will help us move strongly through the largest public health crisis in our lifetimes.