Jonathan Kanter and Adam Kuczynski explain why it is important for people to still have human connection, while maintaining social distancing and isolation
Social distancing comes with social side effects – here’s how to stay connected
Jonathan Kanter & Adam Kuczynski
To fight the spread of coronavirus, government officials have asked Americans to swallow a hard pill: Stay away from each other.
In times of societal stress, such a demand runs counter to what evolution has hard-wired people to do: Seek out and support each other as families, friends and communities. We yearn to huddle together. The warmth of our breath and bodies, of holding hands and hugging, of talking and listening, is a primary source of soothing. These connections are pivotal for responding to and maximizing our survival in times of stress.
Priority number one is to follow the recommended social distancing guidelines to control the virus. The cure is definitely not worse than the disease – experts’ projections of disease spread and mortality without strong intervention make this clear.
But as with any pill, there are side effects. As psychological scientists at the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection, our lab studies social connectedness, why it is important and how to maximize its benefits. Our clinical and research experiences help us understand the side effects of social distancing and suggest strategies for addressing them.
Human beings are social beings
In times of stress and illness, being deprived of social connection can create more stress and illness. People who are lonely have higher levels of the hormone cortisol, an indicator of stress; show weaker immune responses to pathogens; and are at increased risk for premature death. Isolation can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and other clinical conditions.
For those who must be quarantined because they are infected with the virus, this research has one important implication: Depriving the sick of social connection and physical closeness unfortunately may make it harder for them to defeat infection. For example, lonely college students respond more weakly to influenza vaccinations than do non-lonely students.
There are other costs. Loneliness makes people feel more vulnerable and anxious in social interactions. An official mandate to socially distance and isolate may increase what psychologists call intergroup anxiety, the natural threat and distrust people feel when interacting with those who are different.
People may circle the wagons around themselves and those they perceive as like themselves – those with whom they share a common identity – while excluding everyone else. The recent travel restrictions play into these very human fears, and could exacerbate impulses to blame and stigmatize others as the source of this crisis. These fears fuel negative and inaccurate stereotypes of others, rather than cultivating connections to a larger human community that is suffering together.
Read the entire article here.