Social distancing, has quickly become a household term. As a therapist, every time I hear it, I think of how important it is that we slow the pace of Covid-19 infection. Then I think of the mental health implications of social distancing. Reading the news every day, I see dozens of headlines about the effects of Covid-19 but precious little about mental health is ever mentioned. Why, in 2020, are we still primarily reacting to one obvious health concern without seeing the complex health context within which that concern rests? Could this be a moment to consider health as a more complex experience?
Two things concern me about social distancing. When you’re ensconced in a loving family, it seems clearly prudent. Maybe even nice. But if distancing means one is home alone, that distancing quickly becomes isolation. And isolation becomes loneliness.
Loneliness feels awful, but it doesn’t just feel awful. It suppresses immune function. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Steve Cole, genomics researcher at UCLA pointed out that, because evolutionarily we relied on each other for survival, the brains of human beings read loneliness as a mortal threat. The article said, “norepinephrine cascades through the body and starts shutting down immune functions like viral defense, while ramping up the production of white blood cells…this surge in these pro-inflammatory white blood cells…(which are) highly adapted to defend against wounds, (happens) at the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.”
At the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.
So, we just might avoid Covid-19, but if we don’t – if a germ gets past our plan to avoid them -, our immune systems may not be primed to fight it. And we can avoid this by keeping social distancing from becoming social isolation.
The second is that by social distancing without a plan for how to prevent the spread into mass isolation, we might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. From one life-threatening health concern, to another. Because in addition to suppressing our immune systems, isolation causes depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018, 48,344 Americans died. So, while we are taking crucial steps to protect against the spread of this virus, we are flirting with the possibility of more deaths by suicide with no public conversation about it at all.
Everyone I talk to right now is astonished at the levels of fear we are living with. Between the stock market tanking, the president dithering, the neighbors discriminating against coughs and nationalities, it is quite the wild ride. But I also see a beautiful humbleness. I see people concerned about elderly and the already infirm. I see people laughing at the sheer unthinkableness of it all. There is community. There is – despite the social distancing – connection. If you’ve ever been through a hurricane or an earthquake, you recognize what is happening. It’s what happens when there is a weather event. We talk about our experiences. We lean on each other.
Of course, we should follow the recommendations of the WHO, the CDC and state and local officials. But also, the best parts of ourselves need to come out of hiding in the face of this pandemic. We can be afraid but at this point, it’s not helping us to stay healthy so perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself. When we are afraid, our fight or flight response is online and our ability to think creatively is off. And creative thinking is just what we’re going to need here if we’re going to not just survive, but thrive.
This morning I woke to the news that our governor, Kate Brown, had banned gatherings of 250 or more. Our school system followed suit and shut down all non-essential gatherings. For my family, this meant one thing. My 4th grade daughter, who had been working harder than ever in her life for two and a half months, would not get to perform in front of an audience in her school play that night. It was devastating to her – and to the other 70 kids desperate to show what they had learned to do. Covid-19 had hit home.
The community could have just said, “woe is me” and left it at that. But they did something else. First, they felt their sadness for some hours and accepted it. None of that, “it could have been worse” or “we shouldn’t think of ourselves, we should think of protecting people’s health.” Because grief will find its way out and the opportunity to perform in front of a packed house is a loss. Then by midday, they sprung into creative thinking. Before the end of the day they had hatched a plan for the kids to perform the play the next day, to an empty theater, with a videographer. It won’t be the same. But it will be a way for the kids to connect with their families around their hard work. A way for the grandmothers who have to stay home to see those kids shine. It will be a way to lessen the pain of distance. It is something.
We need lots of somethings. Video helps us connect now more than ever. Let’s use it with people we would normally see. So what if it feels a little goofy? Senior centers are cancelling all their activities. Hollywood Senior Center is asking people to make phone calls; have kids make cards. Call your local senior center and connect – it helps you and them. The vagus nerve which controls our emotional resiliency is toned by humming or singing. Turn up the music and sing – call your elderly parents and sing together. Imagine this: every time we wash our hands – we make it a point to connect – to remind someone that, just like eating and sleeping, we need to have a human interaction every day.
Do you think I’m doing this for my health? Yes.