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5 Ways to Stay Connected While Keeping Your Distance

5 Ways to Stay Connected While Keeping Your Distance

Social distancing doesn’t mean social disengagement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s how you can stay connected.

Updated March 24 at 2:30pm EST.

For the foreseeable future, the COVID-19 pandemic is drastically changing the way we live. Public health officials continue their urgent calls for social distancing as this physical separation between you and other people is currently one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus and ease the mounting burden on the health care system. So, in these uncertain times, just when we need each other the most, we’re urged to keep our distance.

But physically separating from others doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself or cut yourself off socially. At a recent White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, stressed that “social distance does not have to mean social disengagement.”

Even as schools, businesses, churches, and seemingly everything shuts down, staying connected is vital—even while we hunker down at home.

“It’s especially important now because humans are social creatures who aren’t meant to be alone. It’s integral to staying psychologically healthy,” says Elissa Kozlov, PhD, clinical psychologist and instructor at Rutgers University School of Public Health in Piscataway, New Jersey. Isolation and loneliness can make an existing mental health problem worse or spark a new one, she adds. Here’s how to socialize safely.

Make virtual connections
Thanks to 21st century technology, connecting to others from a distance is easier than ever.

  • Use Skype, Zoom or other video conferencing platforms to have coffee or happy hour “with” friends or “lunch” with co-workers who are working from home. Host a virtual book club or card game.
  • Start a family group text and share jokes, news or videos of your silly dog.
  • Use FaceTime or similar video chat apps on your smart phone to virtually visit family or friends who live just around the corner, or on the other side of the world.
  • If you have a Chrome browser on a desktop or laptop computer, use Netflix Party to watch movies and shows with your friends simultaneously. Use the group chat function so you can talk about what you’re seeing as if you were in the same room.
  • Since most gyms are closed, many are offering free resources for people who want to continue their workouts virtually. Fitness chain Planet Fitness is live streaming free 20 minute “work ins” via Facebook at 7p.m. ET daily.
  • Your religious life can be an even greater source of support now. Many religious institutions are offering either live-streamed services or taped versions. Check your organization’s website or Facebook page.
  • If your “real life” support group isn’t meeting, check to see if it’s gone virtual. For example, many Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings are using Zoom or phone to meet. Check your support group’s website.

Take advantage of social media
In times like these, social media platforms can not only help you help others, but also help you feel connected to the world around you.

  • Set up a neighborhood Facebook or Nextdoor group so neighbors can post notices, share resources or alert others to someone who’s in need. Nextdoor has launched Help Map so neighbors can locate those who need food or supplies and people who are willing to pitch in.
  • Story time is online too. Check out the Storyline Online YouTube channel. It features a variety of celebrities reading kids’ books.
  • Join Pinterest to find new recipes to make for your family or search DIY projects to improve your home.
  • Check out #quarantinelife or #socialdistancing on Twitter to see how other people around the world are spending their time and connecting. Search for other hashtags that interest you.

Go retro
There are also low-tech ways that can help. Write letters, send care packages, pictures and the like, suggests Kozlov. “Not everyone has access to technology, so make sure you’re finding ways to send ‘mood boosts’ to those who don’t have access,” she says.

Older people, especially those with underlying health conditions, are at higher risk of complications if they get COVID-19. For their safety, nursing homes and long-term care facilities are tightly restricting or banning visitation. This is the same population that might not have access to technology and are at risk of social isolation, Kozlov says. So “old school” solutions like sending a card or making a phone call can really brighten their day.

Wondering if you could be exposed to COVID-19 through contaminated mail or packages? It’s very unlikely.

The chances of being infected by letters or boxes that have been “moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature” is low, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds that, “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”

That said, frequent handwashing, including after receiving and opening mail, is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for infection.

Bond with your pet
Your pet is an important social connection and can be a stress reliever, too. A 2019 study published in AERA Open found that even a brief time interacting with pets can help lower stress. Researchers divided about 250 college students into four groups: one petted cats and dogs for 10 minutes; one watched the activity; a third simply viewed a slideshow of the animals; and the fourth didn’t touch or view the animals at all. They found that the hands-on petters had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva than the other three groups.

Important to note: The CDC recommends restricting contact with pets if you get COVID-19 because the risk of transmission between humans and animals is not yet well understood.

Take a breather
Go outside for walks, exercise, fresh air and sunshine, if allowed in your community. You can pass people on the street (maintaining the safe six-foot distance) and wave hello and exchange a smile or a few pleasantries.

“The videos of people in Italy singing out their windows is so moving, and people in my neighborhood have taken to standing on their front steps at 5pm and singing ‘We Are the Champions’ together,” Kozlov says. “This is a great way to feel like you are part of something bigger.”

That underscores the idea that social distancing can be reframed as an act of social cohesiveness. If we all do this, we’re protecting ourselves and others as well, Kozlov says.

She encourages people to adjust their thinking about this trying time in another way, too.  

“Take this time and try to think of it as something other than ‘the time the country shut down.’ Maybe it can also be ‘the time I learned a new skill, the time I read all the books I’ve been meaning to read, the time I watched all the classic movies, the time I reached out to old friends and cultivated our relationships,’ etc. We are all very much in this together, so find your community (from a distance) and try to support one another.”

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

SOURCES:
C-Span. “President Trump and Coronavirus Task Force Brief Reporters.” March 19, 2020.
Pew Research Center. “The Positives of Digital Life.”
Netflix: “A New Way to Watch Netflix Together.”
Nextdoor Blog. “Nextdoor Launches Help Map and Groups to Bring Neighbors Together.”
CBS News. “These Fitness Studios Are Live-Streaming Workout Classes for Free During the Coronavirus Outbreak.”
Alcoholic Anonymous Atlanta. “COVID-19 UPDATE: Temporary Central Office & Meeting Closures; Virtual Meetings Established.”
YouTube. “Storyline Online.”
American Psychological Association. “Keeping Your Distance to Stay Safe.”
Patricia Pendry, Jaymie L. Vandagriff. “Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” AREA Open. April-June 2019, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 1–12.
World Health Organization. “Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Frequently Asked Questions.”

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