Though the coronavirus situation is changing daily, even hourly, by now the need for physical separation from those not in your household is clear. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, says Penn psychologist Melissa Hunt.
“We’re social animals,” says Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department. “We have an entire neuroendocrine system that responds to touch and social proximity with people we care about, that contributes to our sense of well-being and connection in the world. Losing out on that is really hard.”
It’s also not something we’ve really been asked to do before, says Lyle Ungar, a Penn computer scientist who is part of the World Well-Being Project, an initiative that uses social media language to measure psychological well-being and physical health. “This is an experiment on a scale that we’ve never seen in the United States,” he says.
Ungar and Hunt offer some suggestions to stay positive and healthy in the face of this new social isolation.
1. Maintain a connection with the people you love, even if it can’t be a physical one.
“Social distance does not mean no social contact,” Ungar says. Psychologically, face-to-face conversations are best, but right now they’re not likely possible. Instead, Ungar suggests video calls. “They’re second best in terms of emotional bonding,” he says. “Phone calls aren’t as good as video chats, and texting is even worse. But of course, being totally isolated is the worst.”
2. Schedule these interactions.
First figure out which social interactions are most important for you to replicate, Ungar says. Perhaps that’s a virtual happy hour with friends or a virtual Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Maybe it’s staying connected to family who live elsewhere or coworkers you’re accustomed to seeing daily. These are individualized, so determine what’s crucial for your well-being.
Set up virtual dates, then add them into your calendar, he says. “It feels weird and awkward, but it’s a way to connect using something that’s got a few more social cues.” Scheduling makes it far more likely to happen.
3. Continue regular therapy but via telehealth instead of in person.
Keeping mental health appointments virtually is different than re-introducing social interactions into your calendar. “Psychotherapy should continue for those who are already doing it, if possible, but it needs to go remote,” says Hunt, who is also a clinician and regularly sees patients.
Unfortunately, this is still a moving target, as therapists work to acquire the necessary licensing approvals to treat patients in other states and set up video-conferencing services that are HIPAA-compliant and secure, and protect patient privacy. Many insurance companies are now covering such video-based psychotherapy.
If you haven’t yet heard from your therapist, reach out to understand how your sessions may continue. Your therapist should walk you through a basic telehealth checklist and consent, including ensuring that you have private time and space—which can be tricky with children or other family members at home—an internet connection, and a webcam. If telehealth isn’t feasible, touch base regularly by phone.
4. Use social media, but actively, not passively.
For the past several years, one line of Hunt’s research has looked at how social media use, including active versus passive use, contributes to mental health. In general, the work has found that restricting total time on these tools can decrease depression and loneliness, particularly if the time is active and spent connecting with friends and family.
At this moment, Hunt recommends dropping any social media time restrictions, but she does have a thought for how to spend that time. “Active use—more time posting and commenting and less time just scrolling—is really important. Don’t just sit there and watch social media like a magazine or TV show,” she says. “Also, stop following people you don’t know or don’t know well, like celebrities and influencers, even acquaintances. Really put effort into actively engaging with people you know and care about.”
5. Replace lost physical contact.
“Most of us crave physical contact. If you’re in a position where you’re not being touched, that’s going to be hard for people,” Hunt says. Luckily, there are simple ways to replace some of the physical comfort we need and want.
For one, if you’re staying put at home and your family is healthy, it’s likely fine to maintain normal levels of contact. That being said, the increased handwashing and no-face-touching advice still applies. If that kind of touching is not an option, exercise. “Yoga, calisthenics, pull ups, stretching—try anything that can give you some of the same biochemical boost,” Hunt says.
If you aren’t feeling sick, pets are a good alternative as well. “There are real benefits to having pets as companions,” Ungar says. “They’re not as good as human interaction but certainly better than being alone.”
Hunt points to the chemical changes that happen from these interactions. “We know there’s positive oxytocin feedback that happens in both humans and dogs when you pet your dog,” she says. “The more you can physically interact with your pets, the better, to get some of that positive, tactile comfort-loving connection. Pet your dog. Snuggle your cat.”
“Failing that,” she adds, “do anything you can to get yourself somatically comfortable—wrap yourself in a snuggly, warm blanket, hold a warm water bottle—whatever you can to feel physical comfort.”
Melissa G. Hunt is the associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lyle Ungar is a professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, in the Graduate Group in Genomics and Computational Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, in the Department of Operations, Information, and Decisions in the Wharton School, and in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences.