COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured

The importance of staying socially connected during the COVID-19 pandemic

friends physically distanced visiting
Written by Monica Matys

COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our lives, including the social norms that we took for granted. Today, not holding the door for someone or shaking their hand is actually a sign of caring, as physical distancing continues to be an important way to protect ourselves and those around us. But as we navigate through new rules and expectations of daily living, psychiatrist Dr. Carolyn Boulos says social connections are critical to maintain.

“The importance of staying safe has to be balanced with the very real health risks that can be caused by loneliness,” she says. “Loneliness makes people worse. It’s stressful, and if you’re stressed, your immune system doesn’t work as well.”

Dr. Boulos says the realities of the pandemic, and not knowing what the future holds, has people grieving losses on many levels. Many families are living with the devastating loss of a loved one. Others know that important milestones, religious holidays and other celebrations haven’t been the same for some time, and may continue to be affected. She says what’s important is finding ground where you can engage in meaningful social connections while staying safe and following public health guidelines. “Look at what you still have within your control that you can do to stay healthy.”

She says taking steps to maintain good immunity is a key component. For both adults and children, keeping a regular sleep schedule can be a powerful tool in staying physically well. Participate in walks, bike rides and other activities with those you are living with to stay active and counteract feelings of social isolation.

If you live alone, or are missing seeing friends and loved ones, look at how you can see them within safe parameters.

The Ontario Government is now allowing people to establish social circles of up to ten people. People who establish a social circle together are able to interact with each other without maintaining physical distancing.

Establishing a social circle (safely, and within the government’s guidelines) is one avenue that may be taken to help alleviate social isolation.

If you are unable to establish a social circle, or would like to connect with friends and family outside of your circle, the provincial government is also allowing for indoor gatherings of up to 50 people, and outdoor gatherings of up to 100, so long as physical distancing between people who are not within the same social circle is maintained.

Meeting in small groups with appropriate physical distancing and wearing a mask can be very different from connecting digitally, says Dr. Boulos. “As wonderful as it is to have these virtual platforms, I’m hearing a lot about ‘Zoom’ fatigue. We gain so much from being able to see people physically, even if we’re not able to touch or hug them.”

As people are processing aspects of our “new normal” differently, Dr. Boulos says try to be respectful that everyone’s comfort levels may vary. Some may feel comfortable with the two metre physical distancing guidelines, while others may prefer a greater distance apart or meeting for a shorter period of time. “We need to keep open communication with those around us, and to listen.”

She adds that empathy for yourself and others can go a long way. “It might feel very strange, and even rude, to cross over to the other side of the road when someone is walking towards you, but even just saying a quick ‘hello’ can counteract that.”

Normalizing our lives, in small or big ways, is important in moving forward, she says. “While people may not be at work or school right now, eventually life will open up again. I’m encouraging them to go outside and use exposure in small but consistent and safe ways.” Rather than closing down, she says that remaining open to human connection is now more important than ever, so long as it’s done so safely, and within public health guidelines.

August 2020: This post was updated to reflect Stage 3 gathering guidelines as determined by the Government of Ontario.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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