Enjoying time with friends and family members outside your household can be challenging during a pandemic. But the alternative — living isolated without regular contact with others — can be detrimental, even dangerous to our health.
So how does one socialize while minimizing the risks associated with COVID-19? It can be done, advises Dr. Jean Rusinak, a psychologist with the Hutchinson Health Mental Health Clinic.
Socializing — whether in person or by using technology as simple as the phone — is essential to maintain our emotional, psychological and social well being, according to Rusinak. It satisfies our feelings of belongingness and connecting with other people. And it’s as important as our need for shelter and food.
“It’s essential to keeping us healthy, functional human beings,” Rusinak said.
That means people of all types — extroverts, introverts, homebodies and germophobes — need connections with others who matter in their lives.
Unfortunately, many Americans were already falling into patterns of isolation before the pandemic hit in early spring. According to studies reported by the American Psychological Association, Rusinak said, “even prior to the pandemic, loneliness and isolation was increasing more than it had been in the past so we probably went into the pandemic in a kind of lonely or isolated state.”
Rusinak says there’s insufficient data to show those conditions have worsened, but she has noticed from her own interactions that “what I see is a lot of anxiety, a lot of difficulty with ongoing uncertainty. First it was the lockdown, then it was other things, so just the ongoing uncertainty is taking a toll on everybody.”
In her personal life, which includes parenting young children, Rusinak restricts her connections to “a few sets” of people.
“We do try to do face-to-face contacts but we see them in a socially distanced way where we’re able to be 6 feet apart,” she said. “We all have agreed with the rules we’re comfortable with as far as how much risk everyone is exposing their families to, so it’s a similar mindset.”
Bocce ball is a favorite at her house. “That’s something that allows you to maintain a physical distance but being able to engage in some type of activity,” she said. “Everybody has their own balls. We all sanitize ahead of time and clean off the balls afterward.”
Rusinak offered additional advice to combat feelings of isolation:
- Be cautious about your social media use. “There’s a difference between socializing and connecting with somebody, and scrolling through your social media,” she said. “Connecting isn’t just checking Facebook to see what your friends are up to. And, in fact, there’s some research that says the more time we’re engaged in social media, that can be associated with feelings of depression, isolation, loneliness or feeling like we aren’t stacking up to other people. And so scrolling through Facebook or Instagram isn’t going to have the same effect as calling up a friend and connecting with them, or meeting them in a space where you can be socially distanced but can talk more easily.”
- Develop a social routine. It can be as simple as deciding which five people you want to keep up with on a regular basis, and then phoning, video calling, emailing or text messaging them weekly. “It can be a routine that is pretty low-risk because it doesn’t involve a lot of face-to-face contact,” Rusinak said.
- Avoid situations where social distancing guidelines aren’t followed. “It’s hard to control the behavior and actions of other people,” Rusinak said. “It depends on whether they are encroaching on your space and trying to share space. That can be a very challenging thing because it seems like people have pretty strong opinions about how they are comfortable socializing.”
- Set boundaries. Rusinak likes advice she heard on the radio: “Plant out everybody’s chairs and make sure there is plenty of distance. Then everybody has to agree to stay in those chairs. Or mark out a space on the floor and everybody stays in their space. By human nature, we’re social. So we want to be close to people. We want to connect. So we need those physical reminders to say, ‘OK, I’m trying to stay in the lines. Here’s my reminder.’”
- Take notice if your coping skills are failing. Seek help if you are depending on alcohol or other drugs to get through your day. “There are quite a few recovery groups that are now operating outdoor or virtual meetings,” Rusinak said. The McLeod County Family Resource Guide lists more than a dozen helping groups to deal with substance abuse. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/y5662v8m.
- Stay active in groups that you enjoy, or develop new ones that avoid close-up, in-person contact. For example, start a book club with friends and figure out a safe way to regularly meet. Use websites such as Zoom to meet if you cannot all join in a safe place.
Finally, Rusinak advises staying in touch with older family members and friends who might not get out. “Our older community members are the ones most at risk for COVID but that also means they are the ones really having to limit their interactions whether it means with grandchildren or socializing with friends or attending church,” she said. “So I think it’s important for everybody and maybe more important for us to think about what we can do to support them.”