Why Social Distancing is so Difficult and What We Can Do About it
Patrick Psaila
April 7, 2020

A pat on the back, a warm embrace, a friendly hug, a sincere handshake. This is how humans connect socially and express affection towards each other. This is what many of us are missing as we are instructed to keep our distance from each other. Even the most introverted of types, who cherish their personal space and enjoy being in solitude, have the need to connect from time to time.  

What the Science tells us

The reason why social distancing is so difficult to maintain over a long period of time is that it is counter-evolutionary and as a result counter-intuitive for the human brain. According to neuroscientist Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory, we are intrinsically “social creatures” and our brains are wired to connect.

“our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth”.

Dr. Lieberman is therefore stating that our brains are biologically hard-wired for social connection. It is so important for us that when we are deprived of it, the neural circuitry of pain is activated. This is a way of ensuring that we never neglect the importance of staying connected.  

Numerous studies reveal that having meaningful and numerous connections with others is a key predictor of better health and wellbeing. Our social networks have a direct positive effect on our health and happiness, partly, because social support and connection lowers the negative impact of stress on our brains and bodies. This was clearly illustrated in the findings of an ongoing seventy-five–year longitudinal research project called the Grant and Glueck study. The strongest conclusion of this study is that the highest predictor of our overall happiness and fulfillment as we grow older is the quality of our social relationships. Specifically, the study shows that when we know we can turn to friends and family for support, friendship and entertainment, our nervous system relaxes, our brain stays healthier for longer, and both emotional and physical pain are reduced.

In the light of all this, we can easily understand why we find it so hard to stay away from each other. As social beings physical proximity is natural and important for us. We shake hands when we meet and greet each other. We hug to celebrate victories and kiss and embrace each other to express love and affection. We hold each other tenderly to show support and friendship during difficult times. Social gatherings are an intrinsic part of our lives. Families, friends and colleagues gather together to play and relax, to celebrate and to support each other. Groups of people form in large gatherings for entertainment, worship or to make their voice heard in a protest.

It is not only hard but painful to stay away from such fundamentally natural human behaviour. It is particularly difficult for elderly people, who already tend to lack physical affection and are now are being asked to distance themselves further from people thus deepening their loneliness. Social distancing can also be very difficult for people who live alone, not out of choice, but because of their life circumstances.

How to stay emotionally close while physically distant

How can we responsibly observe and practice social distancing while maintaining social connection? I want by pointing out that what we need to practice is, in fact, physical distancing not social distancing. We need to find ways of maintaining physical distance without creating social disconnection. To achieve this, we need to be a little creative and make that extra effort to engage in alternative means of creating and nurturing our social connections. The following are some practical suggestions that may help us stay physically apart but socially and emotionally close. I will organize these suggestions in two categories – family and friends and work colleagues.

Staying Connected with Family and Friends

Virtual Dinner Dates: Simply connect through an online platform and have dinner or a drink while chatting with them just as if they were in the room. This may feel strange at first but once you get used to it, it can really work.

Movie Nights: Watch the same movie or favourite sports game while connected with friends on an online platform so it feels like you are watching it together.

Walks and Talk: Go out for walks at the same time while on the phone with a friend. Bluetooth earphones are ideal for this.

Exercise together: Agree on a mutual time for a walk or a jog. Call each other and have a chat while exercising. This is especially effective if you manage to this with the people you would normally exercise with.

Play Together: Play your favourite board game using table–top simulator games that are available on-line.

Use On-Line Chat systems: Use available chat systems to send messages during the day with positive messages. A simple “take care, thinking of you”, “how’s it going?” or “wish you were here, missing you” can make a huge difference to someone’s day. Remind people that you care for them or that you wish them well.

Celebrate Special Occasions: Special days like birthdays and anniversaries can still be marked and celebrated. Send flowers or gifts that can be delivered. You can even have an on-line, mini-party with family and friends.

A Simple Call: Before the explosion of social media, on-line platforms and short messaging systems, people used to pick up the phone and call each other. This may be the only way of staying connected with our elderly relatives who may not be so familiar and comfortable with technology.

Staying Connected with Work Colleagues

Many of the suggested points may be applied to your work colleagues. However, these are some work specific tips that can be applied with your teams.

Connecting for Fun: Use the “happy hour” concept to create social connection times during the working day especially when people are working from home. You and your team or colleagues can all stop working for a break and connect on-line. The following are some ground rules that will help to make this time effective.  

  • Leave these meetings agenda-free. They are meant to recreate the feeling of taking a break together, which means spontaneous conversations and open-ended discussions, sharing of stories, telling jokes, etc...

  • Establish some odd or funny rule for everyone to observe just for fun. This could be something like wearing a funny hat, people bringing something meaningful for everyone to see. You can sing a song together or create a group rhythm by tapping the tables in synchrony. The idea is to have some fun and a good laugh together.

  • Encourage each other to share their home context rather than try to hide it. This is the time to show your colleagues your dog, let the children come into the room and say hello or even play some music for people to dance to! The idea is to have casual connection time between colleagues as well as create a sense of togetherness.

Relational Team Meetings: Another important way of fostering and maintain meaningful connection between your work mates is to make sure that your meetings are not purely operational. Allow time for people to talk about their feelings about the current situation. Create the space for people to share struggles, frustrations and concerns as well as coping resources, positive experiences and inspirational stories.

During these challenging times our priority is to stay physically safe and healthy while doing our utmost to safeguard our jobs, our businesses and the economy. However, this should also include addressing the mental health impact of social isolation and disconnectedness by making our utmost to remain emotionally connected with our relatives, friends and colleagues. This may very well be a critical factor in safeguarding our well-being and enabling us to sustain the necessary health and safety measures in the long-term. Social distancing is physical distancing and with a little bit of effort and creativity we can remain emotionally close and socially connected to our community.

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