By Dana Rizer, FEAST Executive Director
There is no question that practice of social distancing is essential right now. I just wish we had a different term for it.
During this pandemic, while we inarguably need to create physical distance by staying home, avoiding groups of any size, and keeping at least six feet of space between ourselves and anyone else when we are outside for essential reasons, distancing, or worse, isolating ourselves socially could have other significant and unintended negative health outcomes.
Numerous studies have illustrated that social isolation is one of the core drivers of not just of poor mental and emotional health, but also physical health outcomes like heart disease and stroke, as well as increased mortality.
Particularly important considering the moment that we’re in is a study published by the American Psychological Association entitled, The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health, which cited the following: “Having a more diverse social network is associated with better health outcomes, such as greater immunity to infectious disease (e.g., Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997)…”
Thankfully, there are countless ways that we can practice physical distancing, while also keeping or even enhancing our social connections. Letters, phone calls and text threads are a simple way to reach out across the prescribed divide of time and space, to let people know that you are with them emotionally, if not physically. I have personally been heartened by an ongoing text thread with all of my college girlfriends that began as a simple check-in and has evolved into the sharing of major life experiences previously undiscussed because of the business of our regular daily lives. The five of us haven’t been in the same room together in more than six years, but this current climate provided an urgent invitation to lessen the distance between me and those I care about.
Here in Los Angeles, we are just over a week into what may be several weeks or months of a physical quarantine, and I already know that one of the things I’ll miss the most during this period is the act of gathering together around a table, enjoying good food and even better company during what now feels like a truly sacred social act of sharing a meal. Thanks to technology, while we may not be able to share the same meal at the same table, why not host a virtual dinner party? It may take some adjusting to park a screen at the spare seat in your dining room, but the benefit is at least twofold: you’ll get to be with other humans who are similarly hungry for connection, and there will be far fewer dishes to do compared to the last time you hosted friends for dinner.
Relatedly, many previously in-person events are now being hosted online, from yoga and meditation classes to book clubs and seminars. Although we may miss the experience of a warm hug or handshake, we can still feel each other’s presence in cyber-space, and that can make a difference.
There are other observances, drawn from traditions that practice mindfulness and compassion, that we can do on our own to increase our sense of connection and belonging. One practice involves holding in our minds the statement, “just like me…” For example, the next time you’re at the grocery store and feel the urge to purchase sixteen bags of pasta of dry pasta, “just in case” supply chains aren’t as strong as we have been assured, remember the phrase, “just like me…” and consider that other individuals or families, like you, may be hungry and in need of food. Or, when someone ahead of you in line purchases the last bottle of hand-sanitizer, you can acknowledge, “just like me they too are fearful for their health, concerned about their wellbeing.”
So, yes, please do stay at home for now, and keep a safe distance from others if you do venture out into public. And by all means, wash your hands often and vigorously. But please, stay connected, socially, emotionally, spiritually. We may not get to share the same physical space for the time being, but we need each other now more than ever.
 American Psychological Association. "Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170805165319.htm>. AND American Journal of Public Health. “Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Living Alone: Identifying the Risks for Public Health.” 2016 May; 106(5): 786–787. Published online 2016 May. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4985072/
American Psychological Association. “The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health.” Lynn M. Martire, Melissa M. Franks. Health Psychology Vol. 33, №6, 501–504, 2014. https://www.apa.org/pubs/