Remaining connected to others is vital to our mental health

By JAMES K. SULLIVAN, MD
Posted 8/6/20

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities are being asked to reduce close contact between people.  This is called social distancing and it’s a vital strategy to slow the …

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Remaining connected to others is vital to our mental health

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During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities are being asked to reduce close contact between people.  This is called social distancing and it’s a vital strategy to slow the spread of this highly contagious disease.  As the virus spreads from person to person, reducing face-to-face contact from others is essential.  This means staying home as much as possible and, if leaving your house, wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, and staying six feet away from others.  These measures are the best way to protect our family, friends, and the community from COVID-19 virus.

Remember that these steps are only to keep us apart from others physically.  This doesn’t mean that we also need to be disconnected emotionally.  Remaining connected to others is vital to our mental health.  Social connection in its various forms is associated with many well-being measures.

For many years, the scientific community has investigated the human need for connection and its vital role in maintaining overall emotional and physical health.  Dozens of studies have shown that having a social connection with other people lowers the potential risk of developing anxiety and depression, helps us regulate our emotions, leads to increased self-esteem and can actually improve our immune system.  Being lonely on the other hand, has been linked to poor emotional health and decreased well-being.

One often cited experiment found that people perceived a hill to be steeper if they were alone at the bottom of that hill compared with when they stood there with a friend.  Having someone else there makes the world a less challenging place.  We need to be careful that by practicing social distancing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus we do not increase our social isolation and create a different stress entirely.

Although we cannot physically be with others, we can still maintain a sense of connectedness and promote our own sound mental health and well-being.  COVID-19 has created a break in the structure and schedule of our daily lives, and in times of stress such as now, our world can feel chaotic.  We need to increase predictability and promote our sense of normalcy by setting up a daily schedule and routines when we can.  Set an alarm to wake up at the same time each day.  Schedule daily blocks of time for exercise, housekeeping, a favorite show, reading or relaxation.  Is there a skill you want to learn such as a new hobby, a musical instrument or a foreign language?  Mastering a new ability provides a sense of productivity and diverts your attention into a positive direction.  Focus on your strengths.  Find ways to improve on things in which you already excel.  Further successes will improve your positive attitude and increase your confidence.  If  watching the news or browsing social media is increasing your worry and anxiety, consider reducing this source of stress and, instead, set time aside in your schedule to reflect on the things in your own life that bring you peace.  An impressive body of research suggests gratitude practices, such as a daily ritual of listing three positive moments, writing down happy events in a journal or the practice of reviewing the positives in your day before sleep, lead to significant increases in one’s level of happiness, overall life satisfaction, an improved mood, as well as, a positive affect and disposition.

Consider setting a goal to center your focus and direction.  This process requires careful consideration of what one hopes to achieve.  Make your goal attainable.  For example, it may be overwhelming to have the pressure of cleaning the whole house looming in your mind. Instead, make a benchmark to clean out one kitchen cabinet a day or find three objects to recycle or donate every week. Meeting goals can increase our sense of direction and progress. 

Lastly, prevent interruption to your personal relationships during this time of social distancing. Staying connected with your circle of friends, family, and community remind you that you are not alone in this situation and will alleviate feelings of loneliness.  A shared burden is lighter and increases our ability to connect on common ground.  Although we need to limit physical closeness with others we can still communicate meaningfully through phone calls, emails, letter writing, and various video chat platforms.  It does require more effort to intentionally connect others in these times but it results in emotional resources that are invaluable. 

If you find yourself, during these times, isolating from others, and experiencing loneliness or that your stress levels are increasing and anxiety is prominent, please reach out for help. Untreated depression and anxiety can lead to not only an increase in mental health concerns but also affect your physical health by way of changes in sleep and appetite.  A wise initial phone call could be to your primary care provider or you can contact the 24/7 Care New England Behavioral Health Services Call Center at Butler Hospital at 1 (844) 401-0111.  In addition, a call to a friend or family member may just result in that social connection that could start to turn things around. 

The crisis of this pandemic that we are experiencing may not end soon.  Building a foundation of healthy coping and staying connected to each other will make these difficult times much more manageable.

James K. Sullivan MD, PhD is Chief Medical Officer at Butler Hospital and Executive Chief of Psychiatry for Care New England Health System.

   

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