Stressful Times: Staying Connected While Apart

In this final installment of the University of Maryland Global Campus series “Stressful Times,” UMGC psychology program faculty members explore tips for staying connected with those you’re separated from while continuing to practice social distancing.

The practice of social distancing to reduce the spread of viral infection can cause stress for individuals everywhere as they continue to navigate the uncharted landscape created by the novel coronavirus. But in a March 20 World Health Organization press briefing, epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove suggested a key to reducing such stress is remembering that the purpose of social distancing is physical—and not emotional—separation.

“You may have heard us use the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing and . . . keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another, that’s absolutely essential,” Van Kerkhove said. “But it doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family.”

In fact, though physical isolation is an important strategy in fighting the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, it’s essential to stay socially connected with friends and loved ones for our emotional and mental well-being, according to Michelle Green, adjunct professor of psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus.

 “Even the most introverted among us have a need for connection with friends and family. Connectedness to others boosts the strength of our immune system, our emotional well-being—and even our physical health.”

Sticking to a Routine

Maintaining a “connection routine” can boost the beneficial effects for all concerned, said Joe Costa, an adjunct psychology professor at UMGC, who added he was impressed by the emphasis placed on establishing routine while volunteering with the Wounded Warrior Program.

“Starting and sticking to a new purposeful routine regimen while staying in touch with friends and family is essential to combat the ‘cabin fever’ that will inevitably develop for many,” he said. “I would especially recommend scheduled daily calls, not emails, to establish and reinforce [this] new routine and calling those whom one has not called for some time, such as old classmates.”

Lyn Thaxton, fellow UMGC psychology adjunct professor, echoed Costa’s recommendation. “Set a regular schedule for communicating by phone, email, Skype, or whatever works best for you and your loved ones.”

Staying Connected

People are discovering new ways to stay connected using technology platforms such as Skype, FaceTime and Zoom while continuing to text and call each other. Green suggests taking video chats through these platforms a step further by planning time together, such as synchronous virtual group-watch parties on Netflix.

Or, be a helpmate or sounding board for those in need, said Cynthia Munshell. For instance, the UMGC adjunct psychology professor suggests reaching out to any quarantined friends and co-workers.

“Ask if you can deliver anything to them or pick up prescriptions. [Or call] a friend who is dealing with employment instability or is cooped up at home, suddenly homeschooling their child, and let them vent,” Munshell said.

The novel coronavirus pandemic presents opportunities to reconnect with those you may not have spoken to for some time and to stay connected with your local community through online classes, videos, or demonstrations.

UMGC psychology experts offer the following additional suggestions for staying connected with friends, family and the community:

  • Video conferencing and old-fashioned calls
  • Texting with individuals or groups
  • Social media communication using Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and similar platforms
  • Online games with friends via Xbox, PlayStation, or the Internet
  • Online classes and collaborative learning
  • Virtual group exercise classes offered by local gyms or online providers
  • Taking a cooking class with a local chef
  • Creating virtual events such as happy hours, milestone celebrations, networking, game nights
  • Creating virtual meetings and discussions around a common activity, such as a book club, or learning a new language
  • Planning online reunions with former classmates or co-workers
  • Helping local businesses by sharing their takeout and delivery information on social media

Connecting with those outside your home is important. But, said Green, it is equally important to stay connected to those you do see daily.

“For those at home with family members, spend time directly interacting, rather than engaging in parallel activities. Home improvement projects, board games, or exercising together in the backyard can go a long way toward meeting our social needs,” she said.

“Have some old-fashioned fun with family while stuck in the house,” Munshell agreed. “Break out the board games and puzzles. Try out some new recipes. Pull out the bread making machine in the back of the cabinet . . . or bake your favorite cookies!”

Staying connected and establishing new routines is critical in combatting the stress that comes with isolation and in helping provide us a sense of normalcy, Green said. The COVID-19 crisis, though, has limited severely our in-person social interactions, she added.

“The type of casual, incidental, in-person human interaction we typically experience in any given day is not happening much, if at all, particularly for those out of work or school or ill with the virus.

“Therefore, it is very important to make an extra effort to interact with others in your home or virtually,” said Green.

 About Stress Awareness Month

From the official website: Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, Stress Awareness Month is a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions about stress that are prevalent in our society. Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992.