Coronavirus has upended our world, creating global shared anxiety. Typically, in times of stress, we tend to turn to each other. We gather: For dinner, movies, a concert, a gym date. But as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs, medical experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have urged (and some state governors have mandated) social distancing and avoiding large gatherings or any setting where we come into close contact with others.
Connecting in all the ways we have come to know now carries a risk. Add to that, the gestures that provide comfort in hard times—a hug, a hand squeeze, or any show of physical affection—are all but prohibited.
But know this: Cutting back person-to-person contact doesn’t have to lead to isolation or heightened loneliness if we can figure out smart, meaningful, and creative ways to stay connected. Here are seven ideas to consider:
1. Set a Social Media Dinner Table
Heavy use of social media has been shown to increase loneliness and isolation…except when it’s used to enhance existing relationships or forge new meaningful connections, according to recent research from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Make creative use of video chat applications like FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype to stay in regular touch with family and friends.
For instance, set your open computer on the dining table once or twice a week during dinner and invite far-flung relatives and friends to a virtual meal. Go around the “table” and ask everyone to name three things they’re grateful for before you eat. The practice of giving thanks has been scientifically linked to more positive emotions, especially useful in tough times.
2. Take Your Book Group Online
Some experts say that if you’re young, healthy, and symptom-free, small gatherings of up to ten people are okay as long as you keep a distance of six to 10 feet. Others recommend limiting all social engagements to help contain the virus’s spread.
If you belong to a book group, consider taking your monthly get-together online via a video chat app—and don’t forget the wine and cheese! If you’re not in a book group, consider organizing a few friends or colleagues to start one. Reading will help you break away from the 24/7 news cycle and provide an entertaining and literary distraction—and something else to think and talk about.
Or, take that same idea and turn it into a Netflix viewing party. Plan for friends to watch a notable movie or documentary, then get the group together virtually to talk, just as you would leaving a movie theater. Bring popcorn!
3. Play Games
There are other ways besides video chat to use technology to keep in touch. Challenge someone to a game of Words with Friends; or round up one to eight friends willing to purchase ($19.99) and download the online party trivia game You Don’t Know Jack. Typically, most of us don’t make time for play, but research has found that play lowers stress and cultivates connections.
4. Support Your Community from Home
Many organizations—political parties, faith-based groups, nonprofits—rely on volunteers to make phone calls, a more pressing need now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that communities create “buddy systems” to make sure vulnerable and hard-to-reach people stay connected and receive updates about COVID-19. If you’re not in a high-risk group, consider volunteering to check in on older friends and relatives or the elderly in your neighborhood. “Research shows that volunteering nurtures positive feelings called ‘helper’s high,’ says Adam Perlman, MD, meQuilibrium’s chief medical officer, “as well as relieving depression and other health benefits.”
5. Connect with Nature
Social distancing doesn’t necessarily mean staying stuck indoors. Get outside and get some fresh air. Being in nature reduces anger, fear, and stress, and boosts our mood, so head to a park, take a hike in the woods, a walk/stroll on the beach, or even around the block. If you’re at low risk and symptom-free, maybe you ask a friend to join you as long as you keep a healthy distance.
6. Make Future Plans
Looking forward to special activities boosts our spirits, gives us energy and makes us more productive. Plan a trip, an event to attend, or a celebration of an upcoming milestone with family and friends. If a friend is a car-ride away, set a dinner date or a day trip a few months in advance and put it on your calendar. Create opportunities to strengthen your relationships with fun things that you, your friends, or relatives will look forward to enjoying.
7. Send a “Thinking of You” Text
Maybe you just drove or walked past a coffee shop you and a friend both love. Text them to say you’re thinking about them. In fact, make a list of friends and family and commit to calling, texting, or emailing them regularly. Try to reach out to make at least one emotional connection a day. Research shows that reaching out and supporting others has mental and physical health benefits, including increased happiness and lower stress, even though we tend to turn our focus inward toward protecting ourselves and our families in times of uncertainty.
According to Healthbeat, the Harvard Medical School newsletter, nurturing a resilient mindset in the face of stress isn’t about denial, but about finding an upside. One such stress response is called tend-and-befriend, where people feel the need to reach out to friends and family. Connecting this way boosts levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, and makes our brain’s reward centers more responsive to social contact. That is an important part of resilience.