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Embracing Social Connections in the Age of Social Distancing

December 10, 2020

Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC, shares strategies for maintaining social connections in the age of COVID-19 and explains the importance of social connectedness.

Dr. Jain is a member of the Psych Congress Steering Committee, a psychotherapist in private practice, and Adjunct Clinical Affiliate at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing.


Read the transcript:

Hi, everyone. My name is Dr. Saundra Jain. I'm a member of the Psych Congress Steering Committee and our Psych Congress family.

In case you haven't noticed, the holiday season—it's arrived. But of course, due to COVID‑19, the holidays are going to be really different this year because our holiday celebrations, and our family, and friend get‑togethers, they’re all going to be different. It's quite possible that many of us may experience feelings of isolation and loneliness during this holiday season.

Let's be honest. This may affect not only our patients, but what about us? As mental health providers, we're also at risk for suffering feelings of loneliness and isolation during these uncertain times. We, too, will all have to make modifications for our holiday get‑togethers with our families, our friends, and our coworkers and make the necessary adjustments for the upcoming holidays.

I'm so grateful to be spending time with you today to address some of these concerns and share a few ideas about how we can protect ourselves and our patients when dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness.

In the age of social distancing, let's do this. Let's talk about how we can embrace social connectedness and reap the many benefits.

I think we'd all agree that in the age of COVID‑19 social distancing is just part of our everyday conversations and our behaviors. When we combine social distancing with sheltering in place for extended periods of time, the end result is often feelings of loneliness and isolation.

As mental health providers, we know this is a terrible formula for our patients' mental health and their well‑being. In fact, it's a terrible formula for anyone's mental health and well‑being, including our own.

Data tells us that social isolation takes a negative toll on our overall mental and physical health. Recent studies have found that social isolation significantly increases a person's risk of premature death from all causes. The risk may rival that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.

Social isolation also impairs our immunity, as well. It's liked with higher rates of depression and sleep troubles. Not only that, but social isolation is associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia.

It's quite clear that social isolation comes at a very high price, and we must do everything in our power to diminish it, if not eliminate it completely. When we find ourselves and our patients struggling with feelings of isolation, what can we do? Well, we can turn to the power of social connections.

You may be wondering, "How can we do that in the age of COVID‑19 when we're all social distancing and we're not able to get together with our friends and our family?"

Let me try to address some of those concerns. We've been researching wellness for more than a decade. We've learned that connecting with others is a powerful and effective way to counter feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as improving our levels of wellness. Let me tell you how we did this and what we learned along the way.

Part of our 30‑day wellness program, WILD 5 Wellness, is the practice of social connectedness. We ask participants to meet with or call a minimum of 2 friends or family members each day for 30 days. Of course, we've modified the meet‑in‑person practice due to COVID‑19.

The practice of social connectedness, along with other wellness-enhancing practices like exercise, mindfulness, optimized sleep, and nutrition has consistently, across many studies, shown remarkable improvements in anxiety, depression, sleep, mindfulness, pain, social connectedness, disability, and cognitive functioning, as well as improvements in wellness.

We learned that taking action to connect with others produced positive results after just 30 days of practice. In the face of COVID‑19, and having to deal with modified holiday celebrations, when we encounter feelings of social isolation and loneliness, why not take action? Be proactive. Reap the benefits, both physically and mentally, by maintaining and nurturing our social connections.

I want to share just a couple of ways that you can connect with others and nurture your social connections during this pandemic. Since we're already well into the holidays, let's make these suggestions holiday‑specific.

Here we go, suggestion one. Schedule a virtual family or friends holiday meal or get‑together. If this type of gathering is important to you and to those you love and care about, then make it happen. Don't let COVID‑19 be a barrier to keeping this tradition alive and well.
You may be thinking that it just won't be the same and you're right. It won't be the same. But there may be some benefits to this new tradition. Let's take a quick look.

First, you can invite as many people as you want because you don't have to worry about seating capacity. Two, you don't have to worry about coordinating who's bringing what in terms of the food. Everyone is in charge of their own meal.

Three, you don't have to worry about driving or flying across country to get to the celebration. All you have to do is log in and you're there. Plus, think about all the money you'll save on travel.

I'm sure there are many other benefits, but you get the idea. Remember, you can maintain this new tradition long after the holidays by simply scheduling a family or a friend meal or get‑together on a regular basis. Think of all the money you'll save by not eating out as much.

Suggestion two, phone a friend, a neighbor, or a relative. Anyone you know who is alone or struggling during this holiday season, reach out to them. Let them know you care about them. Let them know that they matter. I promise you this, you will receive much in return by reaching out to others.

The real takeaway is this. Let's not allow COVID‑19 to rob us of our social connections. Let's find ways to go over, around, under, or right through that boulder of COVID‑19. Let's find creative ways to connect with those that are important to us and for those in need during these difficult times.

Make it a point to schedule that virtual get‑together or make that call to someone in need. Reach out, connect, and keep those connections alive and well. I promise you this. Your mind and your body, they'll thank you.

Now, I know these are difficult times for everyone, and for some the devastation is beyond imaginable. We must do everything in our power to stay connected in whatever creative and innovative ways that we can find.

We are, by nature, social creatures. Let's do our very best to strengthen those social connections. We're just better together.

Take good care, my friends.


See more videos with Dr. Jain:
Coping With Holiday Stress: Positive Emotions to the Rescue
Coping During COVID-19: The Power of Wellness
A Body Scan Meditation
A Mindfulness Meditation

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