Although it already feels far longer than just a few weeks, our new shelter-at-home lifestyle is still a shock to the system. For families not accustomed to 24/7 togetherness, the mental and emotional strains are significant, even as live-in companionship keeps loneliness at bay. But for those who live by themselves, finding connection in this age of social and physical distancing is more challenging than ever. So how to tame that sense of isolation during these difficult days? Here are a few ways to help you connect with others in spite of the obstacles – and to help ease the adjustment to what we all hope will only be a temporary ‘new normal’:
1) Defuse the negativity bomb.
Social distancing! Self-isolation! Quarantine! All these words can easily induce or escalate feelings of fear and anxiety – and not without cause, given that we’re hearing them around the clock these days. While it’s hard to stop the tsunami of triggering words coming at us, we can start stripping them of some of their power by mentally reframing them. Think of them as neither positive or negative, but rather as new skills to learn (whether we want to or not). And, as with any skill or practice, the more we do it, the better we become. Defuse those triggering phrases!
2) Nice to see you.
With traditional in-person gatherings off the table for the foreseeable future, spending time on-line with family and friends is the safest and easiest way to connect – and it’s never been easier to do. Where previously you might have relied on the speedy utility of texts to keep in touch, interacting via FaceTime, Skype or other video-chat apps is a more personal and meaningful way to tend to those relationships. Don’t underestimate the instant sense of connection video chat provides – being able to see reactions and read body language instantly elevates the conversational experience by leaps and bounds. Better yet, video chatting may also help stave off depression in older adults.
3) Good to hear from you.
If you have elderly friends or relatives who aren’t tech savvy and may not have the devices that allow them to video chat, go with the old-school phone call. There’s never been a better time than these unsettling days to reach out via phone. Remember, the over 60-set needs to connect too – perhaps even more than the younger set – but they may be hesitant to reach out first. They may ‘not want to bother you,’ and in their minds, they may still be living in the era when phone calls, even the local ones, were charged at steep by-the-minute rates. As one of my patients recently noted, the extra conversational time is an opportunity to escape the grim news of the day and get to know your elders better. Ask them to share their family stories and their experiences getting through tough times, in short, their wisdom. We can still deepen those bonds when we’re physically isolated.
4) Find your virtual tribe – but make real memories.
Under normal circumstances, my advice is always to connect more in-person than via social media. In-person experiences help naturally nurture relationships and create feelings of community and connection. For the time being, however, we’re going to have to select aspects of the virtual world to fill the social engagement gap. OK, follow-the-leader fitness classes and pre-recorded crafting webinars may have their place but you want to invest more time in participatory, interactive on-line experiences like on-line dinner dates, book clubs, study groups, small group conversational language classes, and the like. You want it to be live, two-way (preferably speaking, not chat) conversations in real time with like-minded individuals. It’s a great way not only learn with and from others, but also to expand your social circle in an organic and accessible way, while staying tethered to the world beyond your front door.
There is, however, one extremely fun exception to the speaking-in-real-time rule: DJ DNice’s Instagram Live Saturday night “Club Quarantine” dance party. DNice spins hip-hop, R&B and party classics live from his living room, lifting peoples’ spirits by encouraging them to dance in their living rooms. Who’s in the ‘room’ with you? Over 100,000 people, including folks like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Rihanna, to name a few.
5) Spread a little love, from a distance, of course.
The relentless stress and uncertainty we’re all trying to manage right now is emotionally and physically exhausting – a sorry state that can make despair or anger all too easy defaults. But the next time you start to feel the negative stuff bubbling up on the blocks-long line at Trader Joe’s, instead of lashing out, stop! Pause for a second and remind yourself to connect with the African spiritual practice of ‘ubuntu,’ which basically means: what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It’s about basic caring, having respect and compassion for others. Ubuntu helps build bridges between people instead of chasms, so practice it daily, from a distance of course.
Another way to get off the quarantine emotional roller-coaster is to find some way of giving to others, or by supporting organizations and individuals – especially nurses, doctors, first responders – who are fighting the good fight. Donating time (virtually), money or supplies where they’re needed most will help you feel more connected to your local community as well as to the whole family of mankind.
Got neighbors? Then find small and simple ways to be of service to them. If you’re braving the crowds at the local market, touch base and see if you can pick up anything for them. Offer to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog or foster one if you can; or make daily check-in calls with those who live on their own and may be feeling lonely.
6) Connect with kindness.
Small acts of kindness are more than just a boon to the recipient—they create momentary connection between you and the world at large, an instant of intimacy that supports you while bestowing compassion on another. When you are kind to another person with no expectation of anything in return, you experience the “helper’s high”— the pleasure and reward centers of your brain light up, as if you received the good deed. Your levels of serotonin rise, and cortisol and blood pressure go down—thanks to the hormone oxytocin, the love and bonding chemical. It also protects your heart by supporting your cardiovascular system.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of kindness is that it takes you out of a single-point perspective, consumed by personal problems and obstacles, which we are all facing now, and shifts you into a shared experience of life. For that moment, or as many moments as you can string together, you remember that we’re all in it together. Kindness is a universal language that crosses imagined boundaries. And it’s one of the easiest things to exchange—no backstory, explanation, or complex social dance required.
Make a daily act of unsolicited kindness a health habit to help you connect during this disconnected time. Do something to somehow show support and gratitude to our healthcare workers on the frontline, thank the staff at the grocery store, tell the deliveryman how much you appreciate the long hours they are putting in, or simply pick up trash when you see it (an act of kindness to your community and the environment). Kindness is a muscle that grows the more you use it. It’s also contagious. Witnessing acts of kindness stimulates feel-good chemistry in others and inspires similar acts. One random act of kindness at a time, we help each other become more present and connected to each other—and healthier, too.