Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Social Distancing vs. Social Isolation

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 27, 2020

Welcome to my first post in the Corona virus era. These posts will be the basis for my upcoming podcast series about staying mentally healthy in an unstable and scary world. These podcasts will be available through Pri-Med and I will have more details in the coming weeks.

Today’s topic is social distancing vs. social isolation or in other words, how to maintain relationships in an era that generates the fear that other people can unwittingly infect you and thereby your loved ones. Although not rational, many folks assume that social isolation will protect them, as this disease is transmitted from human to human, but with a gentle reminder, such as this post, social connection will help and is in fact essential during this vulnerable time.

So, let’s talk about social connection. We need to re-establish relationships with our loved ones, our close and long-term friendships, and we need a sense of community, of “meeting” people who have similar interests who we know as acquaintances now but who might become friends in the future. Maybe some of us have exercise buddies, people we see in yoga class or at the gym. We need to regain those relationships too.

The challenge is on. Maintaining strong and weak bonds in an era where hugging, eating together, and going to the movies is strictly out of the question. But wait, we need to re-define being together. We need to broaden our understanding of that concept. Being together means listening to one another, so perhaps during this time of quarantine we will need to sharpen our listening skills, an unintended benefit of these challenging time. We can listen on the telephone and we can listen through video conferencing. We can do most of our activities over video chat which allows us to tell our stories, share our worries and talk about common interests. We can have dinner parties, happy hour, walking groups and movie time, all by phone or video. We can change our language from “virtual happy hour” to “happy hour”. The trick is that we have to feel committed to showing up for “happy hour” in the same way we feel committed when we promise to meet a friend for a drink. In other words, we need to prioritize our virtual activities as we used to prioritize our in-person activities.

Isolation is bad for our mental health. There is no question about that. Isolation is vital for our physical health. There is also no question about that. And so, we need a new language. A language which says physical isolation is mandatory, and social connection is also mandatory.

What are the action items that I want you to take from this post?

1. Fill up your calendar with social commitments, be they dinners, happy hour, shared movie watching, or walking friends, where each friend goes on their solitary walk but that the two of you are talking on the phone while walking.

2. Restore your calendar. If you had a book group, set it up virtually, for the same time, with the same host. If you were going to church or synagogue, join a virtual group so that religion can return to your life.

3. Go outside and maintain social distance. Even seeing new and old faces from a distance will remind you that we are all in this together and we are all trying to cope with the fear and uncertainty that surrounds us.

4. Meal times should still be social. Make coffee, lunch and dinner dates with your friends and share meals over phone or video. Talk about what you are eating and how it is tasting. Talk about how these dates may be in person one day, but for now this is how you want to catch up with their lives.

5. Look at your calendar and take everything that was canceled, including cultural events, sporting events, family events, work meetings and ask yourself how you can modify those activities by using technology?

To conclude, the natural response to being told to stay safe at home, is to think of home as a place to hibernate until spring comes or the danger passes. Don’t do that. Stay safe and active at home. Use technology to replace in-person experiences. Prioritize that so that your mind, your body, and your soul stay healthy.

2 Responses to “Social Distancing vs. Social Isolation”

  1. Shelly Tannenbaum said

    When you say that your podcasts are available through Pri-Med, does that mean they are available only for medical personnel? Where you live, are you allowed out for walks, like along the beach, etc.? Where I live, we are only allowed out 100 meters or so, which is basically down the length of my street, but not if anyone else is out. I think the thing that most people are upset by (at least I am) are the unknowns, the financial aspects, the terrible health risks to ourselves and our loved ones, the end of life as we know it. Can you write a blog or two on how to deal with these issues? How do we answer our children’s questions on these topics? What do they have to look forward to?

    • Thank you Shel for sharing your perspective and your concerns. In therms, of the availability of my podcast, I will more details soon. You bring up very important anxieties in which I can focus in on. Stay tuned and thanks again.

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