We're social animals learning to cope with distancing

A groomsman livestreams a wedding ceremony on March 29, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong government imposed new social distancing measures that limits public gatherings to four people, with some exemptions. (Getty Images)

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The COVID-19 virus is the new boogeyman. Around every corner, on every surface, in every breath, it lies in wait.

Every day, the global death count goes up; each day feels scarier than the one before.

States of emergency are being declared across the world, and anxiety levels are spreading along with COVID-19.

“People are asking: ‘Is this medieval monster the apocalypse, the end of days,’” says psychologist Frank Farley.

“Is this microscopic beast bringing the entire human race to its knees? You can’t stomp on it, brush it away, or even see it, but it can get inside you and by some black magic take your life!” says Farley.

It’s our new and stressful reality. Just what will be the long-term impact of physically distancing ourselves? After all, we’re social animals first and foremost.

We reached out to Dillon Thomas Browne, a Canada Research Chair in Child and Family Clinical Psychology and assistant professor in psychology at the University of Waterloo:

What kind of long-term mental and physical health implications can we expect to see from social distancing?

Browne: All research would lead us to believe that this pandemic will result in a population-level increase in problems like depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Self-harm, substance abuse, and suicide are likely downstream consequences. Moreover, models of family stress suggest that there will be a deterioration in quality of interpersonal relationships among those whom we are living with during the shutdown, which may include increases in domestic violence and child maltreatment. However, these models are not deterministic.

Are we equipped to handle social distancing and for how long?

Browne: Individuals and families are inherently resilient, which means they possess qualities that allow them to weather adversity. If we look at every disaster in history, humanity by and large has managed to maintain its core social institutions. We are still here, after all. This does not mean there will not be massive disruption and reorganization — this is already happening. That being said, a defining feature of the human species is our ability to thrive and adapt in remarkably varied situations. Much of this is based on our capacity to cooperate, work together, care about each other, and engage in altruism.

Canadians are considered a social bunch so just how are we going to manage?

Browne: It’s important to begin reframing “social distancing” into “physical distancing” for Canadians and other people around the world. Moreover, many families are now finding themselves closer than ever. We have remarkable tools to help us stay socially connected while remaining physically distant from persons outside the home and keeping our pandemic obligations.

One piece of advice to help us get through these uncertain times?

Browne: Find meaning. Our studies of resilience suggest that individuals, families, and institutions are better able to overcome adversity when they are able to ascribe meaning or purpose to their suffering. I recommend everyone read Victor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning at this time, the title of which should be updated to include women, gender non-conforming persons, and children. Remember to stay grateful for what we do have, as hard as that sometimes feels. Frankl achieved this while living in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

What are some red flags that indicate someone is not doing well while practising distancing?

Browne: Look for people dropping off the radar. Check in. Develop an accountability system. I have started a group email where we check in on what we did to practise positive mental and physical health, our goals for the day, and a gratitude list.

Anxiety is already at epidemic proportions. Add a pandemic — now what?

Browne: There was indeed a mental health epidemic leading up to COVID-19. One view would be that these issues exacerbate one another. However, another view is that the pandemic crisis is leading to a fundamental reorganization of priorities, which could result — for some, but likely not all — in better mental health. As people huddle with their families, I expect other predictors of depression and anxiety (e.g., social comparison, workaholism, etc.) begin to abate, as people focus on providing basic needs and keeping one another alive. If people focus on these blessings in the face of hardship, there can be a fundamental shift in values, though that is up to them.