Have you or anyone you know felt increasingly anxious, lonely or depressed lately? As I type this on a dreary Friday, I can’t help but think these are dangerous times for our mental health.
I was reviewing my notes from a workshop I attended involving mental health and came across this quote: “Lots of people aren’t prepared for what life will throw at them.” So many of us are finding that to be true right now. We all need hope and connection. But the need to practice physical distancing during this public health crisis can place those at risk of mental health issues in greater jeopardy. In fact, physical distancing, as important as it may be to slowing the spread of Coronavirus, may actually be accelerating the spread of mental health concerns, even among otherwise healthy people. With physical distancing, we are discouraged from hugs and handshakes. We can no longer congregate in large groups and should avoid close in-person interaction with strangers. For extroverts like myself, this is really hard. I feel like I need to take some more Vitamin D just thinking about it.
What are some things we can do safely to counteract the unintended side effects of social distancing and coronavirus worries?
Unfortunately, social media is actually a poor substitute for human contact, because it provides neither touch nor eye contact, which is why many people who binge on social media can wind up feeling even lonelier. During this season of distancing, it is better to rely on technologies that provide a taste of true contact, especially those that allow us to see each other, such as Skype, FaceTime, and other kinds of video conferencing. Writer Arthur Brooks recommends making a list of family and friends to contact each day and setting aside an hour or two to do so.
Another idea is to make a point of establishing more eye contact with others in the real world. When at home, don’t keep your eyes on a phone screen while talking with a family member—look them in the eyes. I read that there’s even evidence that direct eye contact with your dog will stimulate oxytocin in both of you! At the grocery store or take-out restaurant, make eye contact with the employees and other customers. You can do so for about 3 seconds before it typically gets more awkward.
Additionally, during these distanced days, you need more touch than usual with your touchable loved ones. One suggestion I already shared with my wife is that everyone in the house gets a 20-second hug every two hours. For those of us for whom touch is a preferred love language, this is especially important.
Another thing to do is to take your thoughts captive (2 Cor. 10:5). Don’t dwell on the negative, on worst-case scenarios and problems. You might not be able to control whether a bird flies over your head, but you can control whether it builds a nest in your hair. Maybe you could memorize a hopeful verse like this: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10
Finally, if you are concerned that someone might be really struggling with their mental health, ask them directly. Maybe ask them a question like, “Has it gotten so bad you’ve thought about suicide?” Then, be a good listener. If you or they need more resources, check out the Suicide Prevention page at our web site.
These are tough days, especially when we don’t know when things will change “back to normal” for us. But, keep in mind, that you are not in this alone. Together, we can get through this!
[Updated from 3/23/20]