By Jessica Bloom
To limit the spread of COVID-19, many of us have spent months physically distant from our friends. We’ve tried to stay in contact through Zooms, texts, and phone calls, but it doesn’t replicate the face-to-face experience of social interaction. And that lack of social interaction is taking a toll on many of us — 63% of those sheltering-in-place have reported strong feelings of loneliness .
And while to some that might not sound like a big deal, it is: loneliness has been identified by many researchers as a significant public health issue. One study calls social interaction “a biological need, vital to physical wellbeing and even survival,” while another study links it to both depression and a 26% increase in premature mortality. In other words, people are simply not meant to be socially isolated for long periods of time.
But how do we hang out with friends IRL and stay as safe as possible? This is where things get tricky, especially as this is new territory for most of us. It’s unlikely you’ve had to figure out how to socialize during a global pandemic before! You don’t want to engage in a social activity that will get yourself or others sick, and you also don’t want to make yourself or your friends uncomfortable. Here are some pointers on how to make it work.
Follow the Guidelines (and Not Fake News)
It can be extremely difficult to figure out what exactly we’re allowed to do and how much risk we’re taking with those activities. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an “infodemic.” This is because there’s way too much information online with little input or regulation on what is true and what is false.
The best way to deal with this is by sticking to official health-expert guidelines to get information on practical and effective safety behaviors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO websites are good options. You’ll get proper instructions for wearing a mask, COVID mythbusters, and even advice for how to host a safe cook-out.
Generally, a healthy social interaction might include organizing a meet-up with friends at an outdoor location where you can stay six feet apart. Don’t hug or shake hands, and come equipped with hand sanitizer. If you’re in close contact, especially indoors, wear a mask. Also remember that the longer you’re together, the greater the risk.
Understand How You’re Feeling About Seeing Friends
Individually, we all have factors that change our experience and response to coronavirus. As you’re opening up your social circle, this is a good time to take inventory of how you’re doing. How have the past few months been for you?
If you’ve noticed that your anxiety about social interactions, leaving the house, or getting the virus are resulting in maladaptive behaviours (for example, uncontrollable thoughts, changes in eating or sleeping, or an inability to connect with others), talking to a therapist can be a good first step. You could be making things worse by continuing to isolate yourself. Remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
Remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
If you haven’t been around others in months and feel a decline in mental health, there’s a lot of data that says you’ll likely get a strong boost of positivity just by going for a stroll outside with a friend. Check in with yourself to see what you’d feel safe doing.
Discuss Boundaries With Friends Beforehand
There is a high likelihood that not all of your friends will be on the same page about coronavirus or rules for social interactions. That’s okay. You don’t know your friend’s experience and they don’t know yours — but you can still extend empathy and respect where they’re coming from.
Before meeting up with a friend, have a direct and honest conversation about your boundaries and encourage them to discuss their own. How do they feel about sitting on a patio together? Do you want them to wear a mask? Are they okay with you using their bathroom? This isn’t about judgement, it’s about figuring out what you’re both comfortable with.
Still, if you can’t find common ground on how to hang out or if you think it will be stressful for one or both of you, it might be best to acknowledge the difference and say that you’ll wait a while longer before meeting up.
These are incredibly complex and difficult times to navigate, but hopefully, we can all find activities and people that can safely bring us relief from loneliness.