Image: Virginia Rivers/Flickr

Thankfully, many public health officials have shifted from encouraging social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic to encouraging physical distancing instead.

The difference between social distancing and physical distancing is significant, especially when it comes to mental well-being.

Public health measures are key during this time: keeping ourselves from infecting each other through physical distancing, hand washing, sneezing into our elbows and so forth. But that doesn’t mean me we ought to be isolating ourselves emotionally or socially.

Many mental health problems are rooted in isolation and loneliness. Maintaining long-term distance from each other poses serious challenges to those with mild, moderate or severe mental health conditions.

Being connected to others is foundational to our mental well-being. We are social animals. Thoughtful, intimate relationships help us to feel fully human. Having a friendship network is key to maintaining social support — a pillar of good mental health.

While mental health is somewhat less stigmatized these days, many of us still feel shame about anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. In these uncertain times, many people are experiencing mild to moderate mental health symptoms, even if they never experienced them before. Without friendships and family connections, life is, for most of us, less satisfying and less salubrious.

Loneliness is also negatively associated with physical health indicators. Research suggests that social isolation and loneliness puts us at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cognitive deterioration, elevated blood pressure, and heightened metabolic and inflammatory responses to stress. It even puts us at higher risk of infectious diseases, which may seem counterintuitive.

Loneliness is also associated with mental health imbalances such as moderate or severe psychological distress, depression and impaired self-perception of health. Poor recovery from serious depressions are linked to less social support and loneliness. In fact, well before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian and other societies in Europe and North America suffered from pandemics of loneliness. Many of us called this a silent pandemic, rarely called out for the damage it creates.

Since the pandemic arrived, we are limited in many ways, but not in all. During these times when we are carefully remaining our physical distance, what can we continue to do to improve our mental health?

Here are just a few ideas.

While maintaining distance, we can smile at each other. At the grocery store, on the sidewalk, in the clinic, we just need to turn up our lips. Smiling is infectious, and this is the kind of spread we ought to encourage as it helps to elevate our mood. Laughter, joking or joke-free laughter, as we do in laughter yoga, is an evidence-informed mental and physical health promotion practice, benefiting our physiology. 

Laughter leads to increased oxygen saturation, reduces blood pressure, improves diabetes symptoms, and improves mental well-being. Every morning, ask yourself, can I share a moment of laughter with someone today? If you are wearing a mask, then creative ways to smile are possible, such as smiling with your eyes or making gestures that indicate smiling.

Helping others is also a known way to elevate mental wellness. Being kind to people activates the part of our brain that feels pleasure — it’s also contagious. So when we give, generosity and open-heartedness spreads. In these difficult times, it’s uplifting to witness the large number of acts of kindness that communities are engaging in: grocery runs, prescription fills, mail pick-ups and more. The act of showing that we care for one another, and being tender and kind, soothes our inner selves and each other.

Through these harsh times of physical distancing, let’s continue to show each other that we are present. Let’s turn this moment into the pivotal transformation we’ve needed all along — towards stronger communities, rooted in empathy. This crisis can spur lasting change.

Dr. Farah Shroff is a faculty member in the department of family practice and the School of Population and Public Health in the University of British Columbia faculty of medicine.

Image: Virginia Rivers/Flickr