Don’t Call It “Social Distancing”

By now, I’m hopeful that we all understand the importance of putting physical space between ourselves and those outside of our household in order to avoid transmission of the coronavirus. According to the BBC and its broom trick, you should be able to hold out a broom and not be able to twack another person with it. That means about six feet of distance, as everyone’s been repeating.

But socially distancing ourselves in this time of uncertainty is the last thing we need. In fact, we need to be reaching out to others, trying to bridge the social isolation gap.

It should be easy enough to strengthen our social ties with all the technology that we have available, like Zoom meetings and FaceTime sessions. But all those require at least a little planning, especially when we’re living in comfy clothes, forgoing haircuts and not necessarily getting made up to go out. What we’re missing are all those little interactions that we have in our daily lives: impromptu water cooler conversations, brief chats with a cashier, a quick joke with the server who brings your lunch. There are many ways that we touch each other’s lives than we’re likely conscious of, and those have abruptly stopped.

So if you’re feeling a strange emptiness in your life, there’s a good reason for it.

Got the toilet paper, got the gas mask…but missing the human contact.

And this social isolation is significant. Research has shown that in times of stress, social support is particularly helpful in coping and resilience (for example: Ozdemir & Taz Arslan, 2018; Ozbay et al., 2007), and individuals who are socially isolated have negative health consequences (again, an example: Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003).

Now, consider that people are being isolated at a time when many are losing their jobs, worrying about being able to pay their bills, fearing for their health and wondering when all of this is going end. The financial and health concerns are immediate and frightening, but it’s the unknown extent of the damage that continues to keep people up at night.

This is the time when we should be reaching out to our friends and family members, checking in with loved ones and re-establishing our social connections. While “we’re all in this together” might seem like a hackneyed slogan, it is a perfect description of this new reality. As distant as we might feel, particularly those who are forced to shelter-in-place alone, we are experiencing a global pandemic. Never in my own life have I been able to share in such collective concerns, ones that are literally reverberating throughout this entire planet.

This should be something that ties us together. So as you do your best to be safe and keep your distance for the sake of health, please don’t forget to bridge the social and emotional distance that this unique situation has bought upon us.

A New View of Stress That Can Save Your Life

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a history of not handling stress well.

A recent PubMed search on the connection between stress and proliferation of cancer didn’t help, as I found sufficient evidence to show that the two may be closely linked, and that is a disconcerting thought for a cancer survivor. Finding ways to relieve everyday stress has become one of my highest priorities. But would I be better served by focusing on stress as a positive force?

In her 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a new view of stress, not as a horrible experience, but instead as a state that primes your body for better dealing with hardships.

This is a novel and intelligent way of looking at something that, unfettered, could otherwise harm us. Why not turn it into a positive instead?

McGonigal points out that our attitude towards stress is critically important. A study from the University of Wisconsin (Keller et al., 2012, Health Psychol) demonstrated that people who experienced high levels of stress and were convinced that stress was harmful to their health were 43% (!) more likely to die during the eight-year study period. Note, these are correlational (not causational) findings, although it was striking how that belief predicted an earlier demise.

McGonigal describes research at Harvard (Jamieson et al., 2012, J Exp Psychol Gen) to discover whether changing someone’s attitude about stress can change their response to it. The study was designed to invoke anxiety in the subjects via a “social stress test”. But one group of participants was primed with information about how sensations associated with anxiety were actually beneficial for their performance: pounding heart = preparing the body for action; breathing faster = getting more oxygen to the brain for clearer thought.

Test subjects taught to reappraise their responses reacted differently to the stressors than might have been predicted. They felt energized, more confident and ready for the challenge. But what was even more surprising was that their physiological response was more positive, because they didn’t experience the tightening of blood vessels commonly associated with chronic stress and thereby with cardiovascular disease. Rather, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, as happens during periods of “joy and courage.”

What if effectively dealing with stress is as simple as changing the way you view it?

This is a much healthier physiological reaction. As McGonigal puts it, “How you think about stress matters.” It may make the difference between a long life and an early death.

McGonigal goes on to describe another positive benefit of a healthy stress response: the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which results in people seeking out social support during times of stress. Says McGonigal, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how to you feel, instead of bottling it up.” In addition, this results in an increase of empathy so that you are more likely to help someone else who’s experiencing stress.

Further, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory and protects the heart from potential negative effects of stress.

But most telling is a study (Poulin et al., 2013, Am J Public Health) that examined the connection between high levels of stress, risk of dying and amount of time that people spent supporting those around them. As might be expected given the above information,”people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. …Caring created resilience.”

For me, McGonigal’s talk stood my belief about stress on its head. Can I learn to view the stress response differently? Yes, I believe I can. And what about social support? That is the path my life is taking: finding a more meaningful existence though supporting others.

This is a “win-win” of the highest degree.