From Netflix Party to Zoom: how to handle COVID-19-related social distancing

Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation, according to U of T psychiatry professor
ISOBEL HEINTZMAN/THE VARSITY
ISOBEL HEINTZMAN/THE VARSITY

Social distancing and self-isolation measures have become the new norm for the foreseeable future in Toronto. These measures will help ‘flatten the curve’ of the spread of COVID-19, and can save lives by not overburdening Canada’s health care system.

Canadians have been taking their studies and work to their homes. However, social distancing and its potential toll on people’s emotional well-being is a subject of concern for mental health experts. 

Dr. Suze Berkhout, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a clinician investigator at the University Health Network, explained how weakened emotional stability can be a typical effect of isolation in an email to The Varsity.

In the context of COVID-19, we might also expect other feelings to become prominent: fear relating to infection, guilt, [and] confusion around the reasons for decreasing proximity with others when someone has no symptoms of infection, as well as irritability, sadness, or even anger at the situation in general,” she wrote.

Awareness of the negative impact of social media

With newfound time at home, spending hours on end scrolling through seemingly eternal COVID-19 news feeds can be overwhelming. Jessica Valenti, an American feminist writer, asked her followers on Twitter if anyone else had “been waking up in the middle of the night to have a nice big panic attack.” One of the responders commented that she had just had her “first Coronavirus cry.”

Berkhout mentioned that although it is important to stay well informed about the situation and public health recommendations, people must balance the different kinds of COVID-19 media they consume. 

“That might mean giving yourself a schedule – only going on to certain sites with reliable information and [limiting] how often that is during the day.” Finding examples online of communities pulling together can also foster feelings of hopefulness and resiliency. 

Social connection through remote communication

It is important to remember that physical isolation doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Dr. Heidi Kar, a clinical psychologist at the Education Development Centre advocates for the importance of a solid support system for good mental health. Similarly, according to Jonathan Kanter, the director of University of Washington Center for the Science of Social Connection, people are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after natural disasters when they have family support. 

However, only socializing through text messages lacks “the non-verbal aspects of communication that we respond to and use to understand one another,” as Berkhout pointed out. 

Setting up video calls to converse, with programs like Skype and Zoom, along with doing activities like playing music, games, or watching movies with friends and family can all reduce this disconnect.

Google Chrome even has an extension called Netflix Party that allows you to watch TV shows and movies in sync with others remotely — with a real-time sidebar chat to share your reactions and comments on whatever you’ve decided to binge-watch. 

Berkhout reminds us that “[we] also need to try to adapt and not expect everything to feel the way it would have – it’s a new ‘normal’ and one that we can embrace.” 

Solitary tasks to boost one’s mood

If you are home alone, there are solitary tasks you can do during the day that may help prevent negative thought patterns. For example, start reading the books that you’ve been wanting to read for months, journal your thoughts and experiences, and follow an at-home fitness routine to get endorphins flowing through your body.

Self-care practices like these are great methods for stress relief, emotional release, self-discovery, and building self-esteem. You might come to terms with any negative stressors that have been lingering throughout the escalating panic of COVID-19 and be able to better process them.

It can be discouraging without the normal incentive to leave our houses for tasks such as work, school, and other extracurricular activities, as our usual markers of productivity and achievement are no longer there. Berkhout emphasized the importance of maintaining a routine “so that the day itself has more certainty.” 

Ensuring that “each day has elements of relaxation… enjoyment, social connection, and feelings of accomplishment” through practices like mindfulness, physical activity, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule are all ways to decrease anxiety and improve our moods. 

“One way to help with the challenge of social distancing is to reframe the practice as part of a larger collective effort in which we are helping to protect our communities, especially our most vulnerable members,” wrote Berkhout.

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