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  • Adi Zief-Balteriski, Ph.D.

Cherishing the Human Connection During COVID-19

The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been devastating; many people have been laid off, furloughed, or have been forced to quit their jobs for health reasons. Everyone’s day-to-day routines have been disrupted; many people are also working from home, and students have had to adapt to an entirely online learning environment. Often lost in discussions around the crippling economic and health implications is the biggest factor that has affected our collective mental states is the least emphasized: our need for social connection.

According to the author and scientist Matthew Lieberman, across multiple studies researching mammal interactions, data suggests that “we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.” A large part of our survival as humans is dependent on the relationships we build.

Through our evolution as a species, we’ve had to be able to depend on each other - including people outside of our nuclear family; this concept is called reciprocal altruism, in which our DNA causes us to help others who we believe will return the favor, such as neighbors, friends, and others in our community.

In modern-day life, these favors can range from treating an acquaintance to lunch to providing emotional support to a friend. Fostering positive relationships with others is associated with many benefits.

A study in Australia concluded that strong social ties lengthened life spans among elderly people. “The quality of close relationships has been linked to healthier behavior, lower incidence of chronic illnesses, higher levels of happiness, and lower mortality,” says another study.

With COVID-19 stalling our interactions with others and limiting our ability to grow meaningful and trusting relationships, people are more likely to experience symptoms related to stress, anxiety, and depression through this time period.

When the SARS outbreak caused many healthcare workers to quarantine, a study by a group of researchers found that after only nine days, symptoms of acute stress disorder were observed. Additionally, another study noted that people who were quarantined due to SARS engaged in avoidance behaviors long after they didn’t need to anymore, such as avoiding public places and vigilantly washing their hands - this study notes that for some, the return to normality was delayed by many months.

With the current coronavirus quarantine, these observations may be amplified, as some people have had little to no in-person contact with friends, family, or others.

Even small fleeting interactions with strangers can be powerful for overall happiness, according to studies like those done by Nick Epley and Elizabeth Dunn. In an episode of Sam Harris’ podcast “Making sense with Sam Harris,” Harris discusses how Epley has found that many people make assumptions that speaking with strangers like the barista at the local coffee shop or the person sitting next to you on the airplane will result in weird or awkward interactions when in reality, these interactions have shown to increase positive emotions.

But staying home and limiting interactions outside of the house is now the norm, so even relying on the small connections with strangers is not possible, decreasing the overall happiness of many in this current state.

Despite this, there are a variety of ways to maintain connections and personal happiness as strong as possible without risking the spread of COVID-19. Of the more obvious, staying active online to see what loved ones are up to is a great way to feel less isolated and alone in what is happening.

Additionally, video calling is a powerful tool compared to texting or regular phone calls, as you can see the faces and expressions of the people you’re communicating with, an option that is most similar to being in the same room.

If possible, meeting in small groups outside while also at least six feet away from each other lets you see people in person too. Being in the same space as someone, even if it’s across the lawn, can be positively impactful especially to those who are quarantining alone. This option is not viable for many for a multitude of different reasons, so checking in virtually with those you care about is very important.

Director of the center of gerontology and professor at Virginia Tech, Karen A. Roberto delivers the important take-home message: “People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” so make sure to preserve those relationships during a time like this. Reach out to your loved ones to let them know you are there for them, and, in turn, they can be there for you.

About the author

Dr. Adi Zief-Balteriski is the Chief Behavioral Officer and co-founder of Kumbaya. She is a psychologist and product manager with a history of working on wellbeing and community products.

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