The View

Social distancing does not mean social isolation

A woman has a virtual hangout with friends via a video conference on a tablet.

While it may be easy to stay in touch through texting or other brief social media interactions, UB faculty member Yu-Ping Chang suggests scheduling something more fun, substantial and interactive — like a virtual pizza party via Zoom or Skype.

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 15, 2020

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headshot of Yu-Ping Chang.
“Social distancing does not mean social isolation. I repeat: Social distancing does not mean social isolation. ”
Yu-Ping Chang, associate dean for research and scholarship
School of Nursing

This new normal of social distancing, caution and even quarantine need not lead to isolation, UB nursing scholar Yu-Ping Chang says. If anything, now is the time to cultivate innovative social connections.

“Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” says Chang, associate dean for research and scholarship in the School of Nursing and co-director of UB’s Center for Successful Aging. “I repeat: Social distancing does not mean social isolation.”

Chang, a leading researcher in mental health issues among older adults, says learning how to stay socially engaged in non-physical ways has suddenly become both an essential citizen tool and a survival skill — both for ourselves and those struggling with the loss of connection we took for granted a few weeks ago.

“In this new age of coronavirus, there is in fact a time and a place for isolation and quarantine reserved for those who are sick or showing symptoms of the virus, such as cough, fever, excessive tiredness or labored breathing,” Chang says. “For the rest of us, we must practice responsible social distancing. That is different from social isolation.”

These sudden changes are understandably difficult to cope with, especially for UB students, she notes.

“Our UB students have had to quickly adjust to the switch from in-person classes to online sessions, changes in living situations, separation from their peers and the loss of many other parts of their daily routines.”

These sudden changes, Chang says, go against the fundamental principle of being human, “that at our core we crave to be social beings.” The abrupt shift from “normal life” to the age of social distancing can be detrimental to our mental health.

“Therefore, the question becomes: What do we do to stay socially engaged in non-physical ways?”

Change offers some tips for staying socially engaged while coping with physical isolation.

Maintain a set schedule with structure. To combat the disorientation caused by the need to practice social distancing, it is important to establish a set schedule with structure and boundaries.  Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Find a specific space to attend online classes and do work that is quiet and private — not a bed.  Maintain a healthy eating schedule. Schedule time for leisure, exercise and social interactions. A set routine will help to give the day purpose and alleviate boredom. Avoid sleeping in, excessive naps or binge watching TV.

Take a break from stressful media. Constant attention to media updates or excessively watching coronavirus-related reports can cause further stress. Schedule a time to check in with a trusted news source for important updates, but avoid overdoing it.

Stay connected beyond texting, tweeting or social media. While it may be easy to stay in touch through texting or other brief social media interactions, try to schedule something more fun, substantial and interactive. Organize a virtual group lunch over platforms like Zoom or Skype, or use a tool like Netflix Party to watch — and discuss — your favorite shows simultaneously with your friends. Many museums offer virtual tours of exhibits. Plan an online group get-together with your friends. Use technology to connect, but be careful not to overdo it. Set clear times to use technology to meaningfully connect with friends and family, but also set aside time to disengage and step away from screen time.

Take care of your body and mind. Get good sleep. Quality and sufficient sleep not only supports your immune system, but it also helps manage stress. Find time to move.  Exercise is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Go outside for a walk, a jog or even a bike ride, but maintain that 6-foot distance from others. Take advantage of the many YouTube videos or other apps to go through an exercise routine or practice yoga at home. Take time to connect with your body and mind to truly process how you are coping.

Take care of your body and mind II. Equally important as establishing social connections during social distancing is using this time to establish your relationship with yourself. Practicing mindfulness is more important than ever. Grab a notebook and jot down your feelings, as they are and without judgment — a key component in mindfulness. Studies have shown the many benefits to journaling, including stronger memory, communication, better sleep and even a stronger immune system. A few rounds of daily meditation and mindful breathing can help rebalance your nervous system and immediately change how you’re feeling. Maintaining a mindfulness routine at home is especially beneficial.

Reach out for help if you need it. If you are not coping well, reach out for help. You are not alone. UB has excellent resources for students available remotely, including counseling services and crisis resources. Visit the Student Life website or contact Counseling Services at (716) 645-2720.

Chang and her team are currently working on an app that will allow students to participate in mindfulness exercises designed to reduce stress and anxiety while also practicing responsible social distancing. The app will also have features that allow students to interact with each other.

“We are all in this together,” Chang says. “Eventually we will come out on the other side of this pandemic, and life will resume. However, the skills we develop while practicing responsible social distancing may just continue to serve us well into the future.”

READER COMMENT

I am grateful for this article. I am a wellness coach in the UB Health Promotion office and have been sharing some of these concepts with students. It is nice to see this intention laid out for students in one place. Thanks!

Sharlynn Daun-Barnett