A message from one of our directors:
As a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders, specifically Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the concept of social distancing, at first, seems misaligned with what I am encouraging my patients to do on a daily basis. I am constantly suggesting that patients engage in value driven behaviors. For example, even when struggling with anxiety, I encourage patients to spend time with friends, go outside, see family, go to a movie, go out to eat, or take part in additional activities that may be in line with their values and induce the element of behavioral activation. I have frequently said human beings are social creatures, we need social interaction in order to maintain our health.
Over the past week, the term “social distancing” has entered everyone’s life in a blink of an eye. I’ve been trying to get a grasp on what social distancing truly means from a mental health perspective. Public health officials define social distancing as certain behaviors or actions that are taken by individuals in order to stop or slow down the spread of a highly contagious disease. At this point, I fully agree with public officials that social distancing is necessary to slow down or stop the spread of this virus, but it is important to remember that social distancing does not equate to social isolation.
I have always advocated that mental health is just as important as physical health and, even in the time of a global pandemic, I continue to assert that belief. However, that does not mean that I am suggesting that the guidelines set forth by the Center for Disease Control, or any government officials not be followed. We are currently in an environment of many unknowns. I know I have never lived in a time period where universities moved to distance learning, schools shut down, people told to work from home and quarantines being suggested or even mandated. The idea of being in an environment that is not very predictable is anxiety inducing to even the strongest of humans. That being said, I think it is important to make sure we are taking precautions to protect our mental health in a time where there is a great risk to many individual’s physical health.
As I said earlier, I initially thought that the idea of social distancing was misaligned with what I suggest to my patients, but upon a second, more mindful thought, it is not. It is exactly what I suggest to my patients and try to practice myself. That is, engaging in behaviors that are in line with one’s values. Most individuals will report valuing their relationships with friends and family, physical and mental health, education, career, religion, community, hobbies, etc. Social distancing does not have to stop anyone from engaging in behaviors that are in line with these values. We might just have to be psychologically flexible or creative!
Another important differentiation is between pain and suffering. Yes, they are both uncomfortable, however, pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. The changes that we’re being asked to make as a society are hard, and painful for many. Rather than digging our heels into the ground and saying I cannot tolerate this, it is crucial for individuals to find a way to accept what is happening, and intentionally identify behaviors in line with personal values to decrease the suffering. Additionally, I don’t know anyone who would want another human to get sick as a result of their behaviors. This notion helps make social distancing a little more palatable.
It is important to remember that social distancing does not mean social isolation! I am NOT suggesting physically getting together with family and friends. Here are some ideas that might help make this time easier for individuals who are struggling with the need for social distancing:
Enjoy a meal with friends or extended family. Many people have the ability to video chat
with friends and family. Just because you cannot physically be around other people doesn’t mean that you cannot connect on meaningful levels with loved ones. Set up a time to virtually enjoy a meal with your relatives or friends who you normally eat with on weekends. Even without the option for a video chat, set a phone call to have a dinner conversation with them.
Reach out to friends and family who you haven’t connected with for a while. Now that many individuals will have more time, use the time to foster the meaningful connections that have faded.
Social distancing does not mean you cannot go outside and get some fresh air or exercise. Although going to the gym is not the best option, it is okay to be spending time going for walks, runs, bike rides or hikes. The outdoors aren’t closed!
Though many places of worship have cancelled services during this time period, that does not mean you cannot practice your religion. Set up a time to pray, or meditate, or even do some religious self-study.
If your university or school is closed, take a free online class, or perhaps now is the time to start learning that second language you have always wanted to.
Find a new hobby, or increase the time you spend on your current hobbies.
Practice being mindful! Mindfulness has been proven to have both physical and mental health benefits!
These are just some suggestions. Please remember that structure is important! Even if you are home and practicing social distancing, it is important to take steps to safeguard your mental health. Try to establish a routine of waking up and going to sleep around the same time every day. Though it may be tempting to binge watch entire series on Netflix, continue to prioritize value driven behavior. Try to limit the amount of social media and news exposure. Being constantly bombarded with updates related to the pandemic is not healthy. Also, continue to remember that social distancing is NOT social isolation. If you are noticing any shifts in your mental health, reach out to a professional! Many therapists are continuing to provide therapy while practicing social distancing through HIPAA compliant platforms.
-Christine M. Newman, Ph.D.