Continuing to stay socially connected while physically distanced

By Graham A. Colditz, Siteman Cancer Center
    If you feel that time has been moving at a different pace during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems you’re not alone. A study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE found that most respondents to a questionnaire reported experiencing a distorted sense of time during lockdown. For some, days and weeks seemed to pass more quickly than normal. For others, more slowly.


    One factor that was linked to perception of time was participants’ satisfaction with their levels of social connection. Those who reported being more satisfied with their social interactions felt time moved faster during lockdown. Those who reported being more dissatisfied felt time moved slower.
    This is one example of how social connections may affect our experiences during this prolonged disruption to our daily lives. And while it’s too early to know for certain how the pandemic has influenced the long-term mental and emotional health of people, we do know that—outbreak or not—most people generally do better when they have regular social connections and social support. We are social animals, after all.
    So, as the pandemic continues to stretch on and physical distancing, work from home and other stay-safer guidelines remain in place for many parts of the country, it can be important that we also keep working to stay socially connected—safely. Following are suggestions for staying in touch with family and friends.
    • Keep it virtual—The safest way to socialize remains virtual, connecting through our phones and computers. That can be frustrating to read, but it’s likely to be especially important as the weather turns cold and we spend more time indoors, where we know the virus spreads much more easily.
    • Try something different—While it’s hard to replace in-person connections, one way to make virtual socializing more appealing is to mix things up. Tired of video calls? Try group message chats and phone calls. Maybe even send a handwritten note in the mail. For something more cutting-edge, host a movie night, where you and friends can individually stream the same movie and chat about it in real time. New options to stay connected launch regularly. Explore what’s available, and keep things fun and engaging.
    • Make it a priority—Of course, even with the latest technology, it can be easy to let our social connections slide. That’s only natural when our normal routines have been upended, and for such a long time. If staying connected is important to you, one way to make it happen is to schedule it. Set up regular times to connect with people. Maybe Sunday night is the time you call your family. Tuesday evening you play online trivia with coworkers. And Friday night you have a long video chat night with close friends. When it’s planned for a specific day and time, and someone is expecting to get together, you’re less likely to skip.
    These are difficult times for many people, for many different reasons. And mental health can take a particular hit from extended periods of social isolation and loneliness. If you need help, reach out to a healthcare provider, or visit the National Alliance for Mental Illness (nami.org) for resources. If you ever feel you’re in crisis, call 911 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) immediately.
    Half a year into the pandemic, we’re all probably more than a little tired of it. But we need to keep doing what we can to get things under control. Even as we keep up physical distancing and other guidelines, however, we can still safely maintain our important social connections—with some creativity and patience. We’ll get through this—together.
    It’s your health. Take control.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. Phelps Health and the Delbert Day Cancer Institute (DDCI) are part of the Siteman Cancer Network.