If you’ve beginning to feel isolated or lonely, you’re not alone. While social distancing is a MUST that could last weeks to months, preserving social connection is also a MUST I am here to remind us. Yes, you CAN stay connected, even build connection, while practicing social distancing. A better phrase may be ‘physical distancing’, in fact.
First, why this is important. Second, how we can accomplish this.
The Biology of Social Connection
The biologic power of social connection has been studied and published. So if you trust research out of Harvard, UCLA, Ohio State, and more…read on.
Maintaining social connection has been shown to improve health, well-being, and most relevant to us all now…immune function.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, here in the U.S., loneliness has been labeled an epidemic worthy of a public health intervention, according to Harvard. That term, ‘epidemic’ is typically associated with infectious diseases that spread across populations, but loneliness has been impacting people in similar numbers with many public health concerns. The problem is, loneliness impairs our immune function, so when we combine existing loneliness with social distancing, the concern becomes the impact on our immune resilience, i.e., the ability to fight off infection.
Social processes influence physiological processes
Researchers from varied specialties have contributed a great deal to our understanding of how social processes influence physiological processes that help to explain the link between social ties and health. Lack of quality and quantity of our social connections have been associated with inflammation and a weakened immune system, which affects our health outcomes and mortality. And inflammation is linked to conditions including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, frailty and functional decline. Inflammation occurs via production of proinflammatory cytokines that influence these conditions and can be directly stimulated by negative emotions and stressful experiences.
Additionally, negative emotions also contribute to prolonged infection. Maintaining close personal relationships that are meaningful and positive thus enhance our health in part through their positive impact on our immune system.
Human Social Genomics
Say what…? Human social genomics has begun to look at how everyday life circumstances influence human gene expression. Social isolation has been found to influence expression of hundreds of gene transcripts in white blood cells. In these immune cells, social isolation stimulates increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes and decreased expression of genes involved in the immune system’s antiviral responses. The data show us that human genome-wide activity is indeed influenced by social risk factors and explain the elevated risk of inflammatory diseases in people who experience high levels of social isolation.
Social Distancing, Yes…Social Isolation, No
How do we stay connected while we’re practicing physical distancing?
1. Be intentional with social media
Over 500 million people interact daily with Facebook, yet its use predicts negative emotional shifts over time. While social media platforms like Facebook provide an invaluable resource for fulfilling our basic human need for social connection, we must guard against the reality that rather than fostering connection, it can also undermine it. I know personally social media has helped me maintain connections with people near and far, old and recent. So, stay connected via social media, but be intentional with how long you use it and for what purpose.
2. Reach out and focus on your most meaningful friendships
Let’s take a lesson from the Beatles and Joe Cocker…and get by with a little help from our friends. If we can’t connect physically, pick out those friendships that are meaningful and positive and stay in touch REGULARLY, while social distancing is still the mandate via phone, text, Skype or Facetime. Relationship quality is what matters here. And virtual connections are still connections. A UCLA study showed that social isolation may induce inflammation, while suppressing antiviral immunity, whereas meaningful social connection may reduce inflammation and bolster our immune system’s response to viruses.
3. Engage in activities that DO qualify as social support
Fighting back against loneliness and isolation takes planning and effort, but there are simple steps that increase connection we should consider. Join a virtual club that interests you like a book club, music club, spiritual club, or fitness club so you can engage and support each other while still practicing social distancing. Kill two birds with one stone by taking your dog for a walk. You’ll get fresh air, exercise, and bonding time with your furry friend. Our love with our pets helps stimulate oxytocin (the love hormone), which lowers our stress and improves our immunity. Safely consider appropriate volunteer opportunities, such as helping nearby senior centers with transportation needs or meal delivery.
Last year, Harvard Medical School published a blog laying out how offers of help qualify as social support, and also suggested being available as mentor offering advice or simple expressions of affection can be considered socially beneficial as well. Interestingly, evidence suggests that the health-enhancing effects of social support extend to the giver as well as to the receiver.
While we may not have an antidote to the COVID-19 virus yet, we do have ways to bolster our immune resilience. Take advantage of the biology of social connection, and let’s get creative to ensure that while we’re staying apart, we can at least virtually and emotionally stay connected.