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Social Distancing – Why We Find it Difficult and How to Cope

Are you finding social distancing difficult?

Struggling with isolation? You’re not alone.

Humans are a socially connected species. We’re meant to live in close tribes because we’re actually quite fragile. Compare us to the average lion, bear or even a large dog and we don’t fare well in terms of strength! So, for millions of years, we have depended on each other for our survival and the survival of our families.

However, in a relatively short space of time our world has evolved to a place where we can live and work in total isolation. While this gives us great flexibility and choice, I’m beginning to wonder if the negatives outweigh the positives.

On top of this, we’re currently dealing with a global pandemic. For the first time in our lives, we are being asked to see others as a threat and to socially distance ourselves from everyone around us.

What is Loneliness?

‘Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind. For example, a college freshman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers. A soldier beginning his military career might feel lonely after being deployed to a foreign country, despite being constantly surrounded by other troop members.’ – The Health Consequences of Loneliness

Definitions of loneliness all relate to a sense of disconnection from others and feeling alone in the world. Although technology means we are more connected than ever before, the number of people experiencing chronic loneliness is growing. We no longer live close to our families or in small, tightknit communities. The trend towards being busy leads to further isolation.

Covid-19 is likely to have exacerbated these things significantly. Many people are isolating on their own and could be suffering as a result.

How Do Loneliness and Isolation Impact Our Mental Health?

I was planning to write about loneliness and isolation long before the global pandemic hit. There is growing research around the impact these things can have on not only our psychological health but also our physical health.

Isolation can cause depression, poor quality of sleep, impaired executive function, and accelerated cognitive decline. As well as increasing our stress levels, it can cause poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity. Ultimately, chronic loneliness can increase our mortality rate by up to 30%, making it as damaging as obesity and smoking.

Tools for Coping with Social Distancing

Until there is a vaccine for Covid-19, social distancing is the most effective strategy we have for staying safe. It’s vital we follow the government guidelines and isolate until we’re told to do otherwise. At the same time, we should do everything we can to protect our mental health. Here are a few tips…

Reframe It

I don’t find the phrase ‘social distancing’ all that helpful. Although we’re being asked to physically distance ourselves from one another, it’s important to stay socially connected.

Another term that can help us reframe the situation is ‘safe relating’. Instead of focussing on the threat of the virus, it describes our behaviour in terms of safety. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but I first heard it via Professor Paul Gilbert who has created a series of helpful videos which are available to watch here.

Plan for the Future

Professor Paul Gilbert also talks about the need to plan how we will come back together at the end of all this. Every time you miss someone or have an idea about a social event, write it down and pop it somewhere safe. When this is over, go back to your notes and start planning. Instead of feeling hopeless, this strategy will help you look forward to the future.

Reach Out

Make a list of everyone you love connecting with and start reaching out to them on a regular basis. Although we can only do this via technology for now, it’s still good to connect. You may find it helpful to plan calls in your diary. If it’s written down, we’re more likely to do things. Try to use video as much as possible. It increases our sense of connection.

Use Social Media Wisely

Social media can sometimes give us a false sense of connection. It can also make us feel like everyone else in the world is more connected and less alone than we are. However, when it’s used well, we can find supportive, enjoyable connection with likeminded people. Check in with yourself after spending time online and use this to help you decide whether it’s a positive or negative experience.

Make It Fun

There are lots of fun ways to socialise online. Gaming is huge among teenagers. Houseparty, Tabletopia, Netflix Party, and quizzes and games hosted via  Zoom are a few other fun ways you can gather with friends online.

Back to Basics

If your mental health is suffering during this time, try focussing on the basics. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and moving your body is always a good place to start. Prioritising antidepressant activities – activities that are good for our mood and give us a sense of achievement – can help you avoid a downward spiral into depression.

In the absence of having people to talk to, journaling your thoughts is another way of getting them out of our head so you’re able to think objectively and process them. This post will help you get started.

Being isolated can make us feel more on edge or anxious, so mindfulness can also be useful. Read How to Manage Stress and Anxiety During a Pandemic for more help and support.

And Remember…

As I said at the beginning, you’re not alone. Even when we’re not facing a global pandemic, we all feel lonely at some point. The current situation is extreme, but it’s also temporary and things will change. We can all get through this together.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.