As the reality of life with the COVID-19 pandemic begins to set in, we are confronted with a mounting number of questions and a frustrating scarcity of answers.
These questions go far beyond the effects on physical health from the virus itself. How can we make ends meet if we can’t go to work? What happens to our children if the balance of the school year is canceled?
The list of questions might not be endless, but it is long and growing. One vital answer needed is how we maintain our sense of connection and belonging to our various communities as we attempt to maintain lifesaving physical distancing.
The research is clear that social connection matters to our health. Despite this, even prior to COVID-19 we are more socially disconnected, isolated and lonely than we should be considering our connectivity through technology and social networks. It’s ironic that the more we have become socially connected through social media, our feelings of belonging and connection remain low.
And this loneliness and social isolation hurt our health in significant ways. In our attempt to reduce the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable neighbors we risk deepening our social isolation unless we can respond with creativity and compassion.
As we find ourselves removed from our community connections, such as school, church, office and even our families, what are some ways we can recover our natural and essential sense of belonging?
The first is resisting the bunker mentality we often adopt in times of deep hurt or crisis so we can begin to discover new and different methods of socialization.
In Pittsburgh kids found a way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by looking for shamrocks hung in the windows of their neighbors. A similar Easter egg hunt is being planned in a few weeks.
Churches all over the country are brushing up on livestreaming worship and community prayer opportunities to help maintain connection and a sense of community while sanctuaries and choir lofts sit empty.
Parents of school-age children who are scratching their heads to figure out how to help their students continue learning to look for help and strategies for transforming the kitchen into a classroom.
Especially in a beautiful place like Colorado, “cabin fever” is inevitable as we all stay close to home. And, it is important to remember it’s not only “OK” to search for joy in this routine shattering pandemic, it is beneficial to our physical and mental health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to “make time to unwind.” We must give ourselves and others permission to “make the most” of this time while continuing to take the response to COVID-19 seriously. We can do both.
Be creative in finding ways to stave off boredom. For those with families, have everyone in the house make a list of five or 10 activities they never have time to do and choose one every day, even if this means you must endure a marathon game of Monopoly. Finding new ways to connect with those closest to us could be a welcome and unexpected “side effect.”
Another important way to maintain connection is to look out for our neighbors. Exploring ways to serve those around us has the benefit of creating new connections or strengthening existing networks. Look for opportunities to listen to the needs of those around you, whether a family across the street or a local business nearby.
Being good neighbors as we travel this fearful and stressful road will make the path through and after much easier to navigate. Let’s accept the challenge to overwhelm this crisis with creativity and compassion.
Benjamin F. Miller is a clinical psychologist and Chief Strategy Officer for Well Being Trust, a national health foundation focused on advancing the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation.