How to Stay Connected to Loved Ones Despite Social Distancing

Get creative in strengthening bonds and preserve mental health
woman feeling alone because of social distancing

Before COVID-19, people kind of disregarded the personal space of others. (Raise your hands, close-talkers and sidlers.) Now that social distancing etiquette is in full effect, we’ve all had to become even more mindful of the three-foot rule. In the age of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the three-foot rule has become the six-foot rule. And in instances where people are infected, isolation and quarantine have become the new normal.

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On top of that, a growing number of states have implemented stay-at-home orders in a further effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. The order’s name pretty much indicates what we should do — stay home unless you’re an essential worker or you need to go out for healthcare services or household necessities.

If you’re not a homebody by nature, you’re going to have to find a way to make this essential routine more bearable and comfortable. One way of doing so is by keeping the lines of communication open with your family and friends.

“This is a difficult time for many of us because as human beings, we like to have control over our environment,” says health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP. Dr. Sullivan believes that by remaining social during times of uncertainty, we can maintain some control in our lives. She recommends checking in regularly with friends and family through social media and even getting creative with communication apps.

Start with the youngest and oldest members of the family

Dr. Sullivan says the two major groups that could really benefit from regular check-ins and video chats right now are the elderly and children.

“It’s especially important to connect with the elderly who may have some fears around this and to ask them if we can help them. And then on the flip side, our children need to be given information that is age-appropriate,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We owe it to the elderly and to our children at this point to either protect them or support them — and we owe it to our family and friends to stay connected with each other,” Dr. Sullivan adds.

Check on the extroverts and the introverts

While memes might convey that this is a great time for introverts and a terrible time for extroverts, no one is immune to the disappointment of not being able to do things according to plan. “For an extrovert or an introvert, there’s going to be some disappointment in every situation,” Dr. Sullivan says. When you think about the vacation plans that you’ve had to abandon, the business opportunities you’ve lost or the major celebration that you had to reschedule, it can leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed. So, it helps to check in on our friends regardless of where they fall on the social spectrum.

“Disappointments are going to be in everybody’s life no matter if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. So for me, it’s important to first recognize the disappointment in missing these situations,” says Dr. Sullivan. Talking to your friends about these things can help them work through their feelings. And in doing so, stress can be alleviated.

And if you know a few introverts, don’t just assume that they’re loving all of the solitude. Let them know that you’re there for them. Dr. Sullivan recommends doing quick check-ins to see how they’re doing or if they need anything. She even suggests asking if they’d be interested in watching a television show or doing another quiet activity with you.

Create fun, new ways to interact with friends and family

It’s evident that social media has become a lifeline for many of us. You’ve probably noticed that people who swore off Facebook are now more active than ever. What’s cool is that we’re starting to use social platforms in more creative and genuine ways. From dance classes to DJ sets, live storytime sessions to virtual tours, we’re discovering unique ways to stay connected and engaged.

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Dr. Sullivan is a huge proponent of creative communication methods in a time of crisis because pulling away from the people we love and trust will only make the situation harder to manage.

“I believe that America is the engine of ingenuity, ” says Dr. Sullivan. “We should be creating ways to stay connected or inventing something interesting or fun right now to be creative. And we should be coming up with these ideas and letting our kids participate in them to help build their emotional IQ and their self-confidence as they’re navigating this normal as well,” explains Dr. Sullivan.

Kids are very clever and imaginative. If you need inspiration as you’re trying to come up with new ways to spend time with loved ones while the stay-at-home order is in place, look to them. Dr. Sullivan illustrates this through examples from her own children.

“My kids were able to FaceTime their cousins who live in Cincinnati and play a board game with them. I thought that was a very creative way to stay connected,” says Dr. Sullivan. Her daughter even wrote stories and read them to her grandparents over FaceTime.

“I think we can utilize this time to be innovative and to be creative in terms of how we’re going to cope with this, and we can also use it for good. Meaning, we can look at what we still have in our lives and be grateful for that versus what we’re missing right now,” adds Dr. Sullivan.

Connect on a deeper level

We know this is a tough time for the huggers and hand-holders, but you can still touch your loved ones’ hearts in extraordinary ways. Spend time with them by watching movies or your favorite shows through video chat. Try having dinner or shaking your groove things together with a virtual dance party. These activities can speak volumes and show that you truly do love and care about your favorite people.

If you prefer low-tech methods, Dr. Sullivan recommends sending a simple email, postcards or even handwritten notes to people in your circle to stay connected.

Communicate to help manage anxiety and stress

During this time of sheltering in place or even being quarantined under the same roof, it’s highly possible that stress, anxiety and even depression might start to get the best of us. If it happens to you, know that it’s normal especially under chaotic circumstances.

“This is a time of fear and stress,” says Dr. Sullivan. “There could be physical illness in your family and then stress as we’re looking at the economy around us. So, we’re seeing all of these major stressors in our lives and I think we have to realize that people who didn’t have mental health issues may start having mental health issues. And then, more importantly, for people who have been diagnosed with mental health issues or have struggled with them their entire lives, their fear and anxiety are going to be exponentially greater at this moment in time,” Dr. Sullivan explains. 

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That’s why it’s so important to keep in touch during these uncertain times. No one should struggle alone. If you find that you still could use someone to talk to or you know someone who is in need of assistance, here are a few resources that can help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
800.273.TALK (8255)

National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine
800.950.NAMI (6264)

You can find help from your local healthcare provider as well. “For instance, at Cleveland Clinic, our Center for Behavioral Health’s psychiatry and psychology programs have all transitioned to virtual visits,” says Dr. Sullivan. “We are available to help people with any crisis or with anxiety or depression at this point,” she adds.

Dr. Sullivan explains that managing our stress level is also critical right now. “Stress contributes to a lot of very negative physical and mental effects on the body. Some of the things that stress can impact are our gastrointestinal system, our immune system, our cardiac system and obviously, our mental and emotional health. So, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves from a physical and emotional standpoint.”

To check in with your own feelings, Dr. Sullivan suggests taking the time to write in a journal if you don’t already. You can also practice self-care at home and most importantly, talk to someone if you’re having a hard time coping with current events.

And if social media is becoming too much, it’s OK to take a break

If you’ve been on social media a lot, you’re probably starting to feel a little overwhelmed or burned out from all of the coronavirus posts. If you’ve reached that point, take a break. Dr. Sullivan compares social media to a very disastrous, unorganized closet. She suggests going in, taking a quick peek to get what you need and then pulling yourself right back out.

Cherish opportunities to spend time with those who matter the most

Despite the coronavirus craziness, Dr. Sullivan encourages people to see the positives in what has become the new normal. In fact, she’s even applied this way of thinking on a personal level.

“My husband and I always say, ‘Gosh, if we only had the time to do this, it would be so much better.’ And now we have the time, I’m just going to embrace the moment. I’m going to recognize the gifts that are right around me — and they are the most important people to me.”

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