All of these are vital strategies for slowing contagion. They also push against our deep instincts for togetherness, and can worsen our emotional well-being during already trying times.
Decades of evidence demonstrate that human connection protects individuals against anxiety and uncertainty. In the company of loved ones, threats become challenges and painful shocks hurt less. Loneliness, by contrast, is psychologically poisonous: It worsens sleep, deepens depression and predicts increased mortality rates among older adults.
When things get tough, lonely individuals suffer more. They react more intensely to stress, leading to psychological, immune and cardiovascular issues. But difficult moments also provide an opportunity to come together. Following earthquakes, bombings and terrorist attacks, people pour out of their homes to help strangers, ignoring lines of class and race that typically divide them. Such altruism helps helpers. By doing for others, they assert community and find a sense of purpose in uncertain times.
To all the ways the coronavirus is hurting us, let’s add one more. Like other catastrophes, outbreaks kill many and leave even more terrified. But contagion also turns our colleagues and neighbors into a source of that fear. It drives us apart when we most need each other.
Social distancing is indispensable right now, but so is social connection. Our televisions and social media feeds are pulsing with anxiety. The most vulnerable to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — the elderly, for instance — are also most susceptible to crippling isolation. If we allow physical distance to become chronic, widespread loneliness, we risk adding a mental health crisis to a viral one. Loneliness might also spur people to ignore public health recommendations, increasing our collective risk.
But distancing does not have to destroy human connections. Many of us bemoan online technologies for ripping apart our social fabric. Ironically, those same tools are now our best chance for holding it together.
Online communities are not new. People who suffer from rare illnesses, for instance, often don’t know anyone in person who shares their struggles. Depending on the risks, some patients have to self-quarantine. Many overcome isolation through online message boards, Facebook support groups, and independent sites like RareConnect.org, where they can trade information, share stories and feel heard. Patients often describe these sites as oases of empathy in a lonely world.
As the weeks of social distancing roll on during the covid-19 outbreak, we’ll all need spaces like these. Why not create one? You might be holed up in your apartment, but so are your colleagues, neighbors and third-grade classmates. You might feel confused, lonely, bored and scared, and they probably do, too. Through our suffering, billions of us probably have more in common than usual.
We don’t need to spend this massive collective struggle feeling alone. Message an old friend on Instagram; FaceTime your cousin and watch “The Bachelor” together; post a video reflecting on this weird moment. Don’t shy away from being vulnerable or asking others, too. Remember that physical and emotional distance don’t have to coincide.
We should also use technology to create habits of connections, reproducing the rituals that make us feel less alone. My lab has moved meetings to video conference, but why stop there?
In normal times, our researchers run into each other constantly at our coffee machine, and end up chatting about their day, or a new idea, or both. We’ve now created a “virtual coffee machine,” a standing video link where team members can take breaks and invite others to join. My undergraduate students, likewise, have created a FaceTime “dining hall,” where they can congregate over meals even while scattered across the country.
When we share physical space, we don’t confine our conversations to urgent matters. We dawdle, kibbitz and goof off. Those in-between moments are urgent — to our sense of place and community. We must keep them around in whatever format we can.
Depending on how we think about it, even distancing ourselves can bring us closer. Young, healthy people are generally not at grave risk from the coronavirus, but their willingness to socially distance protects more vulnerable individuals.
Even our isolation is an act of solidarity: one we take alone, but also together.
Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”