Exhorted by the need for a collective behavioral response, “social distancing” has become a refrain for how we may contribute to the fight against COVID-19. You can’t help but be confronted by the cues everywhere: directional signs in the isles of stores, floor spacings in the cashier line, one-way entrance and exits, chairs atop restaurant tables, and even taped-off gym equipment.
    Truly, social distancing is a new code of our collective conduct, but is it time to think differently about the space between us?
    As the escalating mental health concerns associated with COVID-19 carry us out to deeper water of stress and anxiety, we know it is important to tend to activities that promote our resilience. Dr. Traci Golbach Ph.D., Director of Outpatient Services at Ridgeview, observes, “Resilience is more than the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, or significant sources of stress — such as this health crisis or the chronic workplace and financial uncertainties it has caused, resilience is also the capacity to organize and clarify things so that one can move forward.”
    Perhaps, then, it is time we clarified what is meant by “distancing” and what is not.
    We know through the science of early childhood brain development that we are hard wired for social connection and attachment to one another. We also know that wearing face coverings and distancing ourselves physically from one another are wise safeguards to limit exposure and mitigate the spread of the virus.
    For a vast number of people, the pandemic has led to increased isolation from co-workers and from our elderly or at-risk family members. Simply, COVID-19 has fragmented and dismantled our regular systems of communing with one another. Social connection is not only increasingly understood as a core, essential human need and crucial to individual health and well-being, but it confers a wide range of community benefits, particularly, a community’s ability to adapt to change and to withstand and respond to chronic stressors and prolonged pandemic health disasters of this type.
    Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., who is a psychiatrist, researcher, educator, and author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Body Keeps the Score,” found that “Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.”
    So how can we socially support and connect with one another while taking every precaution to be physically distant?
    Here are some proactive steps to prevent loneliness and stay socially connected: first and foremost, remember to invest in your personal relationships with others that you’ve cultivated over time; use technology to your advantage to see and converse with one another through applications like Zoom and share pictures through social media; volunteer your time to an important cause, which not only helps the community but is a great way to meet people; keep an active mind by continuing to learn, new skills strengthen confidence and helps your social interactions be more pleasurable; and be active, it too is an amazing way be with other people, whether walking in a neighborhood or a local park.
    We know social engagement with others is vital in promoting overall health, wellbeing, and resilience. Personal relationships derived from trust, care, and respect promote self-empowerment and resilience.
    Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk who was a theologian and scholar of comparative religion, wrote to a colleague suffering from despair over a disastrous and hopeless period of his life, “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.” When we’re going through times of great struggle and uncertainty, like the difficult kind we are today, turn to the people around you and be closely connected socially, while honoring the physical distance required of the times. Indeed, perhaps it is time to clarify what distancing really means, then organize and clarify activities to help us move forward. Maybe, in the end, the reality of our personal relationships with one another will save everything.
    Ridgeview is a private, not for profit community mental health center with locations in Anderson, Campbell, Morgan, Roane and Scott counties.