How to Find Support During Times of Social Isolation
Living with a chronic disease is tough enough when you have friends and family members to support you; but, when you’re socially distanced, it can feel extra burdensome and lonely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many unexpected challenges for people with chronic diseases. Many of those considered high-risk for COVID-19 complications are keeping themselves isolated, even as family and friends start venturing back out into the world. Whether you live alone, with a partner, or with a big family, this type of social isolation can compound the stress of an already difficult situation.
Pandemic or not, you might find yourself in situations where you’re isolated because of physical impairments or life changes, like a move to a new city or an overnight work shift. Fortunately, there are still steps you can take to find support during times of social isolation.
Plan Phone and Video Calls
One of the worst things about life during COVID-19 is the unpredictability. When we are unable to make plans for the future, because of our health or a global pandemic, it hampers our ability to look forward to a better tomorrow. The same can be said about other stressful times.
Here’s where phone calls and video chats really come in handy.
“Schedule time to talk with your friends and loved ones every week at the same time,” suggests Meghan Marcum, Psy.D., a psychologist in Southern California. “Scheduling a time in advance gives you something to look forward to throughout the week.”
Invite a Friend for a Picnic
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can take advantage of good weather and schedule an outside get-together with one or two trusted friends or family members. During times of social distancing, you can set up some chairs in your backyard (at least 6 to 12 feet apart) or bring a couple blankets to a local park. Wear masks, bring your own food and drinks, and have a plan for bathroom breaks.
Sure, it can feel a little weird talking to one another from 6 feet away, but try to embrace the awkwardness.
“Remember that social connection with good people will serve you emotionally, physically, and mentally,” says Amber Trueblood, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author. “A little awkwardness is worth the benefits to your health and future happiness.”
People have been using meditation to improve their minds for thousands of years. It is a tried-and-true method of stress relief.
“Consider practicing guided meditations that can help you learn how to let your feelings and thoughts come and go without being overwhelmed,” suggests Brian Wind, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tennessee.
Mindfulness meditation, which focuses on being present in the moment, has been shown to improve anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that it can also help reduce the burden of chronic pain. You can find audio meditations to guide you right here in our communities.
Schedule a Virtual Visit with a Therapist
More clinicians are offering virtual visits than ever before. The transition to virtual appointments has worked out particularly well for mental health providers and their clients.
“For many, a virtual visit may actually be more effective than an in-person one,” says Trueblood. “You may be able to share more fully and vulnerably in the comfort of your own home. You may more easily find the time in your schedule since you won’t have to worry about traffic or babysitters.”
If you don’t have a therapist, or you’ve seen someone you didn’t ‘gel with,’ now is a great time to find a new trained professional. Take this time of isolation to virtually try out a few new people.
“A therapist with whom you have good chemistry will make you feel comfortable, even virtually, by session two," says Michael Mazius, Ph.D., a Wisconsin-based clinical psychologist.
Plan Virtual Activities
While the evening news may be flooded with serious and important issues, it’s important to remember to bring a little levity into your life. Set up a weekly board game over Zoom or sign your friends up for a night of virtual trivia, for example.
“Laughter is good for the heart and soul. The more that you can relax and be present in the moment, the happier you will feel,” says Jaime Bronstein, a licensed therapist in Los Angeles, California. “When we laugh, our mood is elevated.”
Write in a Journal
One of the best ways to support yourself through difficult times is to start a journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just grab a pen and a notebook and try to write for five minutes a day. Jot down anything you can think of.
“If you have access to a journal, spend some time writing down your feelings,” says Bronstein. “You will be surprised at how much lighter and happier you feel after ‘getting things out,’ and onto the paper; it takes the burden off of your heart.”
Adopt or Foster a Pet
“Social isolation is difficult because humans, like most mammals, are social creatures by nature,” says Marcum. “We bond with others through physical interaction, and our bodies release oxytocin when we connect and enjoy time with others. Oxytocin helps balance other hormones like cortisol, which is a stress hormone.”
If you’re feeling lonely, consider adopting or fostering a pet—so long as you’re not allergic or sensitive to them. Studies have found that interacting with pets can decrease cortisol levels, reduce loneliness, improve mood, and even strengthen your social support network.
Take Up a New Hobby
Is there a pastime you’ve always wanted to try? Maybe taking a painting class, going fly-fishing, or knitting a blanket. Now is the perfect time.
“Start a project or take up a hobby you've always wanted to try,” says Wind. “Having a goal to work toward can give your mind something to focus on instead of letting negative thoughts run through your head.”
Get Outside and Enjoy Nature
If you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time inside your home lately, a little time in nature can do wonders. You may want to find a nearby hiking trail, go on a bike tour of a new area, or sit by the edge of a lake.
“Going outdoors into nature, or even looking at pictures of natural scenery, can also be very calming and slow down activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is related to anxiety,” says Wind.
Just be sure you’re taking safety precautions and not going anywhere potentially dangerous on your own.
Remember, This Too Shall Pass
It can be tough to look on the bright side when things are particularly stressful or overwhelming, but remind yourself that there are better days ahead.
“Try to have a positive attitude,” says Bronstein. “Trust that there will be a time, hopefully sooner rather than later, when you will be able to safely resume life as ‘normal.’” And you may find you have a much greater appreciation for little pleasures, like a cup of coffee with a friend or seeing a movie in a theater, when you can resume those activities.
It’s not easy trying to balance your physical safety with your basic social needs. If you’re feeling anxious, frustrated, and stressed, you’re not alone. Our communities are places you can turn to when you have questions and want a little extra support for living with your condition. In addition, you’ll feel much better if you can find creative ways to safely connect with loved ones, even if you’re unable or not yet ready to see them in person.
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