By Aaron Mudd
Bowling Green Daily News
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. crested 32,000 on Sunday, a milestone that brings the importance of social distancing and its role in curbing deaths to the virus into a dire focus.
The word for avoiding mass gatherings and contact with others has become a household term in recent weeks, but psychology experts are warning against confusing social distancing with social isolation.
“Social distancing doesn’t mean emotional distancing. … We can maintain contact with others without actually being in physical proximity with them,” said Jan Trabue, a licensed professional clinical counselor and co-founder of Family Works Therapy in Bowling Green.
Many studies have demonstrated the toll loneliness reaps on our physical and mental health.
“People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them,” wrote Emma Seppala, science director for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the author of the 2016 book “The Happiness Track.”
“In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being,” she wrote.
A poll this month from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many Americans are worried about the economic fallout from the virus and its influence on their everyday lives. Many stress about losing income because of business closures, sapping their savings or an inability to pay for testing or treatment if they need it.
“Feeling anxious during the pandemic is normal. That’s number one,” Trabue said.
The key to staying grounded, Trabue said, is to focus on the facts and how you can take action.
Fortunately, Trabue said, there are guiding principles people can follow to beat back the anxiety and loneliness that can chip away at our physical and mental well-being.
Get creative when it comes to staying connected.
Handshakes and hugs are out under social distancing guidelines that preclude contact closer than 6 feet, but Trabue emphasizes getting creative to connect with friends or family who are at risk.
Tapping into tools like FaceTime or Skype are great for keeping in touch with friends and family from a distance, as are outdoor activities hiking, photography or bicycling, Trabue said.
So-called “reflective listening” can also be a great technique for validating others’ worries and concerns by first hearing someone out and then relaying what they’ve just said in your own words.
To connect with others, it may also help to reach out to at-risk groups, such as the elderly or immuno-compromised, who need help. The Helper Principle, often used in therapy practices, demonstrates there are also benefits for the helper through altruistic acts.
Take care of yourself and stick to your routines as much as possible.
The growing spread of coronavirus in Kentucky, with now more than 100 confirmed cases as of Sunday, has shuttered most businesses and schools for weeks.
But as much as possible, Trabue said, it’s important to stick to your daily routines while still being mindful of good hand hygiene and social distancing. Preserving your routines “helps to maintain a sense of normalcy” and control, Trabue said. That also means protecting good exercise, nutrition and sleep habits from disruption.
“I suggest developing a routine that includes modified versions of your typical activities,” she said. “The idea that fits this guiding principle is to have a schedule.”
Don’t fuel catastrophic thinking.
When it comes to stress, Trabue said, “the fuel for anxiety is catastrophic thinking.”
To control this, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends being mindful of your news consumption. The mental health advocacy group advises against obsessively following the headlines. Instead, try checking for updates just two or three times a day and consume only what’s most relevant to you – including what’s happening at the state and local level.
It may also help to limit your news sources, such as sticking to updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NAMI recommends.
“Anxiety is energy,” Trabue said, adding that it can be directed to either unhealthy outlets or healthy ones, like exercise, journaling or confiding in others.
“The whole idea is doing what you can do,” Trabue said, “As opposed to focusing on the unknown.”