It’s the phrase that’s been splashed across headlines for weeks: social distancing.
In response to the outbreak of COVID-19, governments and health experts have been introducing radical new measures to slow the spread of this global pandemic. That includes closing bars and pubs, shutting the doors of gyms and yoga studios, and even forcing our favourite cafes and restaurants to shift to takeaway food only. Social distancing is a key force driving this change. So, what is the point of keeping 1.5 metres away from every other human on the planet?
What is social distancing (and why is it essential to #FlattenTheCurve)?
Social distancing is a way of slowing down the spread of infectious diseases. In the case of COVID-19, the virus is shown to be transmitted from person-to-person through direct and close physical contact. From standing behind someone as they cough or sneeze, to touching objects (like door handles) contaminated by the virus, reducing physical contact with others is a powerful way of stopping the spread. In a nutshell, it means staying home (as much as possible) and keeping away from others while out in public.
And what is this thing about #FlattenTheCurve? Aside from earning 500,000+ mentions on Instagram, this now-viral term was first shared by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and made famous by The Economist’s graph in February 2020.
#FlattenTheCurve emphasises the need for social distancing measures as a way to slow the spread of epidemics such as COVID-19.
This is important because it will alleviate the strain on health care systems globally, ensuring every patient has a bed and a doctor to assist in their time of need. If hospitals are swamped with patients and run out of ventilators and intensive care beds, the implications can be lethal.
Although many of us might be young, fit, and healthy, the most proactive measure we can all take is to stay home and practice social distancing to keep more vulnerable members of society (such as older Australians, people with a disability, people with a chronic illness, or an autoimmune disease) safe.
The link between social isolation and mental health
Now that we’re all up to speed as to why social distancing is essential, it’s important to recognise the impact this can have on your health and wellbeing.
Sure, spending the night binging Netflix on your couch with food on its way can sound like the dream. But when we don’t have the choice to socialise, go to the gym, or catch up with our girlfriends over a glass of wine, staying in can be an isolating experience.
Human connection is key to positive mental health. This includes everything from chatting to your co-workers at the office to coffee dates with your besties. However, during a crisis such as a global pandemic, remaining in touch with our support network can be challenging.
Particularly for those of us who suffer from a mental illness (which is roughly 4.8 million Australians, according to the most recent ABS National Health Survey), social relationships are crucial to maintaining a positive outlook on the world. In fact, SANE’s latest research report indicates 90% of those suffering from a mental illness ranked social relationships as either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to managing their overall mental health.
Most of us will encounter loneliness at one point or another in our lives. But in these unprecedented times, feelings of loneliness are magnified. With the majority of us now working from home and staying indoors for almost all of our waking hours (aside for essential grocery store visits or a run around the block), opportunities for social connection are virtually non-existent.
Plus, roughly 24% of us are living alone, making it even more difficult to combat feelings of social isolation. Couple this with a never-ending news cycle filled with anxiety-inducing headlines, it’s no wonder we’re experiencing feelings of stress and disconnection.
Practical strategies to stay connected (even while at home)
Although meeting up at the pub or having our mates around for dinner isn’t an option, there are still plenty of ways we can stay connected with our social network from the comfort of our couch.
In fact, the secret to beating the social distancing blues is probably sitting next to you (or even in your hands right now). It’s time to leverage the power of technology and reconnect with your support network online. Here are a few strategies that might help along the way:
● Call someone in your social network each day: the simple act of speaking to someone over the phone can have an instant impact on our mood. Pick up the phone and commit to calling someone new each day to check-in with them and see how they are coping in such an uncertain time.
● Schedule a group video call with your close friends on a regular basis: open, consistent communication is key to keeping our mental health in check. Reconnect with your support network by making time for weekly phone or video calls, preferably with a glass of wine in hand.
● Organise team meetings virtually: sometimes emails just don’t cut it. If you’re feeling isolated and out-of-touch with your work team, hosting a weekly video call can be a great strategy for keeping lines of communication open. Plus, these calls offer a much-needed chance to let off steam with your colleagues and share how everyone is coping with the #WFHlife.
● Join online workout classes: gyms and yoga classes might be off-limits, but you can still break a sweat from your living room. One of the best ways to rekindle a sense of community is to take part in live-streamed or online workout classes. Whether you want to find your flow with Alo Moves’ free yoga series on YouTube, boost your fitness with Barry’s Bootcamp’s daily live streams on IG TV or join the US boxing gym Rumble’s ‘At Home’ HIIT and boxing series, there’s plenty of free ways to get your fitness class fix from home.
● Tune into podcasts: it might be a more passive way to foster social connection, but listening to podcasts can help fill the void in a time when meeting up face-to-face isn’t encouraged. Browse your favourite podcast app and create a library of episodes to tune into whenever you’re lost for something to do. Plus, many podcasts also have an engaged community of followers on social media that you can join through Facebook Groups (more on that later).
● Limit your time scrolling social media: want to avoid getting sucked down a dark mental health hole? Be conscious of the amount of time you are spending scrolling your social channels. With so many articles, videos, and stories of loss filling our feeds, it’s important to set clear boundaries to protect our own mental health. Use your iPhone’s ‘Screen Time’ app to limit your social networking time on certain apps, and set aside dedicated ‘social media free’ hours throughout your day.
● Write emails to friends and family overseas: stuck in a different time zone to your social network? Why not bring the old fashioned art of letter writing into the 21st Century by crafting long-form emails to your friends and family overseas. Use this form of digital communication as an opportunity to rekindle old friendships and foster new connections. Plus, this is a great excuse to curate and share your favourite ‘good news’ stories that you’ve discovered across the Internet with your network.
● Leverage technology to stream TV shows and movies in real-time with your friends: binging Netflix isn’t often seen as a social activity, but the Chrome extension Netflix Party has changed just that. This app enables you to simultaneously stream the same TV shows and movies with your friends, as well as host live group chats so you can share your thoughts on all the action in real-time. The best bit? You won’t have to share your movie snacks.
● Seek out social connections from Facebook Groups related to your hobbies or interests: as we mentioned, Facebook Groups are a great way to connect with other people who share your interests. Whether its fans of your favourite podcast, fellow book lovers, or even local dog owners that live in your area, these engaged groups offer the perfect chance to chat with likeminded people.
Where to turn to for support
If this article has brought up feelings of isolation, loneliness or distress, there are plenty of professional mental health services you can reach out to anywhere, anytime. If you, or someone you know, is in need of help and support, please contact:
● Lifeline on 13 11 14 (operating 24/7)
● Lifeline Text Line on 0477 13 11 14 (operating 6pm to midnight AEDT daily)
● Lifeline Crisis Support Chat (operating 7pm to midnight AEDT daily)
● Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 (operating 24/7)
● Beyond Blue Support Chat (operating 3pm to midnight daily)