What Are the Psychological Impacts of Social Distancing?
Experts are recommending social distancing techniques to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Here's how keeping your distance from others can affect you mentally—and how to make the most of it.
If someone dodged your hug recently, don't be offended. Many people are practicing "social distancing" right now as a way to avoid picking up the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19. That means pecks on the cheek, hugs, and even handshakes are off the table. If you're wondering what social distancing actually means for everyday life, and how it might impact your mental health, read on.
What is social distancing, exactly?
"Social distancing" might sound like what introverts have been doing on Friday nights since the dawn of time. But it actually refers to keeping a physical distance between yourself and other people—something public health officials often recommend doing to help stop or slow the spread of a highly contagious illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) official definition of social distancing is "remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible." So, unlike "quarantine" or "isolation", social distancing doesn't necessarily mean staying holed up in your house. But it does mean avoiding crowded areas/events and maintaining a generous personal bubble when you are outside your home.
There are varying degrees of social distancing. School closures and work-from-home policies, for example, can be considered social-distancing measures since they enable people to avoid situations where they'd normally be in close contact with others. But you also may or may not choose to avoid getting close to the people in your own home. "Known family and friends may require less physical distancing if you are familiar with the health status of these individuals as well as their recent travel and personal potential exposure [to the novel coronavirus]," says Kathleen Winston, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix.
How far you take your social distancing will depend on your situation, adds Winston. "Like all preventive health practices, including handwashing, environmental practices, and respiratory etiquette, social distancing is an important consideration for everyone and should be exercised around the level of risk facing the individual," she explains. (Related: What to Do If You Think You Have the Coronavirus)
Regarding the current coronavirus situation, the CDC recommends practicing social distancing techniques if you're in a community where person-to-person coronavirus transmission has been confirmed. The agency also notes that social distancing is an especially important practice for older adults and people with chronic health conditions, who are more likely to become very sick if they catch COVID-19. (Here's everything you need to know about coronavirus and immune deficiencies.)
Of course, maintaining distance from people who are sick with any highly contagious illness tends to be a generally good rule of thumb. But does it actually help? Existing research suggests that social distancing measures can help make the spread of a pandemic more gradual, at least in the case of the flu, according to a review published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. A more gradual spread means that health care systems are less likely to become overwhelmed. (If you've noticed people on Twitter calling out the need to #flattenthecurve, they're referring to the idea of using measures like social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 so that case numbers will stretch out across a longer period of time, which doesn't overcome healthcare facilities in the same way a quick spike in cases would.) That said, the authors of the review emphasized that the studies they found were observational and simulation studies, rather than randomized, controlled studies (the latter tend to show more reliable data).
Are there mental health implications of social distancing?
If you've read about the health benefits of touch, you might be wondering how social distancing can affect your well-being over time. After all, no one knows exactly when the coronavirus pandemic will end.
First off, it's true that social distancing could have some negative implications, says Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., L.A.D.C, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy. "We are a high-tech society, but we are also high-'touch' so limiting our physical interactions can lead to feelings of loneliness," she explains.
Social-distancing measures can make people more likely to isolate themselves (think: working from home), which can create problems. "When humans are isolated from one another, they may be more prone to feelings of anxiety about COVID-19," says Nosal. "It's also important to note that while working from home, staying home from school, or being confined to a room while in quarantine, there will be a reduction in physical activity which could lead to added feelings of sadness, frustration, or anger." (Related: Should You Go to the Gym During the Coronavirus Outbreak?)
What's truly heartbreaking is that the elderly—who are already among those at a higher risk of suffering serious complications from the coronavirus—might be hit the hardest by the negative impacts of social distancing. "The elderly might be greatly impacted by social distancing because they often look forward to visits from family members and friends," says Prairie Conlon, L.M.H.P., clinical director of CertaPet. "With fears skyrocketing, I would predict a drastic decrease in visits to nursing homes and elderly care populations." In other words: Go FaceTime your grandparents!
While social distancing is strongly recommended amid the coronavirus pandemic, constantly focusing on these measures and other coronavirus-related topics can take big a toll, says Conlon. "Though social distancing is a concern, as a mental health clinician, I am more concerned about the hysteria brought on by this virus," she explains. "Those who have not struggled with mental health symptoms in the past are reporting panic attacks, which can be an incredibly frightening experience, and many times end up in an emergency room visit." (Here are some panic attack warning signs—and how to deal if you experience one.)
It's not all bad, though. Practicing social distancing can also be an opportunity to tune into your well-being by focusing more on a healthy diet, sleep, or taking walks more than you normally would (in less-crowded areas, that is), says Nosal. "Also, modern technology, fortunately, allows us to FaceTime our friends and family to stay in touch, thereby helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation during this time," she adds.
On that note, technology can also be helpful to anyone who's not sure how to deal with coronavirus-related anxiety (or other mental health issues) and doesn't feel comfortable going to an in-person therapy session. Even if you don't want to sit across from someone, you can still look into telehealth platforms for mental health or ask your therapist if they do video conferencing. (BTW, here's how to find the best therapist for you if you don't already have one.)
"If you experience distress, anxiety, or depression associated with social distancing or a quarantine, it's important to speak with a mental health care provider," adds Nosal. "Most therapists provide sessions via telehealth video conferencing." (Related: The Best Therapy and Mental Health Apps)
Bottom line: Whether or not you're practicing social distancing, make sure you're not ignoring your mental health RN. "Unfortunately, some news media and social media tend to increase anxiety and incite panic, especially in situations like this," says Nosal. "Being selective to your amount of exposure and how you react to the news is key to maintaining good mental health."
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.