Unintended Effects of Social Distancing

There’s no doubt: life has changed drastically in the last year. We aren’t making our usual Starbucks runs, meeting a friend for lunch or even sitting in traffic. When was the last time you saw a stranger’s smile, had someone open a door for you, met someone new or felt the hug of a friend? It seems that normal societal niceties and interactions are becoming obsolete.

It also seems to me as a licensed therapist, and to many others in my field, that the psychological effect will remain long after the current pandemic has resolved. Those of us on the psychology frontline have seen the loss of community and increased impersonality and individualism.

As a society, the news of a pandemic has conditioned people to believe the psychological message that being around others is dangerous. Staying isolated and alone is viewed as selfless, and being separate from others is now considered healthy. Unintentionally, this lifestyle shift has reduced our interactions with others significantly while we banded together under the goal of social distancing and the intended hope of “slowing the spread.” It is like being forced to choose between two evils: physical or mental illness.

With some employers offering telecommuting options and many people choosing to work from home, even going to work or school has changed. Our daily commute might be from our bed to our couch. We go from working on a medium screen to viewing entertainment on a large screen while using a small screen in between. According to the Screen Time 2020 Report, published by United Healthcare, people have spent in excess of 13 hours per day looking at a screen since early 2020.

Humans are designed to be social, live in community and spend in-person time together. Everything from the Garden of Eden, to Darwin, to recent studies using lab rats, to findings in theology, biology and psychology agree — the ramifications of loneliness can range from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse to more severe scenarios like schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s. More than ever, researchers, parents, therapists, pastors and even employers are seeing the effects of reduced social interactions on physical and mental health.

Social interactions and social bonds help us to feel better both physically and mentally. Chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin are released when we interact with others. Dopamine plays a primary role in reinforcement and satisfaction, essentially giving us a feeling of fulfillment. Oxytocin is referred to as the body’s “love chemical,” playing a role in developing empathy, trust and altruism. Low amounts of dopamine and oxytocin are directly linked to bad moods, poor emotional connections and fewer experiences of reward. Essentially, nothing feels good and nothing can make it better.

Before 2020, nearly 60 percent of American adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services. As the year 2020 went on, the number of people suffering in silence with a mental health concern increased. I hear from many, “It seems like the last year just didn’t exist” or “It’s as if this year was stolen from me.” In September 2020, the National Council for Behavioral Health reported that the demand for Behavioral Health Services increased by 52 percent over the past twelve months. Numbers for addiction, suicide attempts and general mental health disorders have increased so significantly it has led some within the National Council to speculate if the country is on the verge of a second public health epidemic. 

As a result, requests for psychotherapy and counseling services today are at an all-time high. Clinicians and providers, like myself, have met that need with an increase in video/phone/message options on top of continuing to offer traditional in-person talk therapy. Though telehealth sessions can be effective and serve clients who would otherwise be unable to receive services, clients have reported that they don’t feel supported or encouraged with virtual sessions as they do with in-person treatment. That’s because online communications and correspondence don’t have the same effect on our bodies and minds. 

A recent study published in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science found that people who have more in-person interactions have a higher predisposition to positive emotions, relationships with others and ability to deal with life’s challenges in a positive way than those who engage in socially distanced relationships. Ultimately, the study concluded that phones and the Internet can’t replace real-life interactions.

It’s important to recognize when you might need help. Reach out to someone if you notice a persistent bad mood, nervousness about being around others or feelings of loneliness. Therapists can provide counsel and coaching.

We also have to get used to being around each other again. The less time you have spent with people, the more uncomfortable it will be when we come back together. Social skills take practice, and the skills you may have lost over the last year need to be redeveloped. Here are ways to train to be more social again:

— Find ways to start a conversation, whether with someone at the grocery store or a neighbor outside. Talk about the weather, ask about what shows they are watching, or request a restaurant recommendation.

— Give compliments. Pay attention to things you really like about them and share them authentically. 

— Host an activity. Invite others to participate in a picnic or barbecue or go for a hike together. 

— Be a good listener by practicing active listening. Ask yourself, “What are they excited about?” or “What’s important to them?” and rephrase it back to them in your own words.

As we re-connect well, healing will happen through relationships and interactions regained. Life will be good again.

Candyce Braker is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Santa Clarita Therapy practicing in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. For a list of resources or to ask any questions, feel free to contact Candyce at cbrakermft@gmail.com or https://www.santaclaritatherapy.com/ 

References 

Screen Time 2020 Report 

Social Interaction in Major Depressive Disorder, Social Phobia, and Controls: the Importance of Affect

Demand for Mental Health and Addiction Services Increasing as COVID-19 Pandemic Continues to Threaten Availability of Treatment Options

Social Science 101: This is Your Brain on Social

The dangers of social distancing: How COVID‐19 can reshape our social experience

10 Tips for Being More Social on Your Own Terms

Online therapy vs in-person: What you should know

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