In this podcast psychiatrist Dr. Shirah Vollmer will discuss the difference between social distancing and social isolation. Dr. Vollmer will provide practical tips for maintaining healthy relationships and maintaining mental health during this unique time when we are physically separated from others.  

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the difference between social distancing and social isolation.
  • Emphasize the importance of interpersonal relationships for mental health and wellbeing. 
  • Gain practical tips for maintaining relationships and social contact during physical isolation.



Shirah Vollmer:

Hello. This is Shirah Vollmer, MD, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine, doing a series of podcasts on mental health during the coronavirus. These podcasts will be about staying mentally healthy in this unstable and scary world. These podcasts are going to be available through Pri-Med and I will have more details in the coming weeks. Today's topic is social distancing versus social isolation or in other words, how to maintain relationships in an era that generates the fear that other people can unwittingly infect you and thereby your loved ones.

Although not rational, many folks assume that social isolation will protect them as this disease is transmitted from human to human but with a gentle reminder, such as this podcast, social connection will help and is in fact essential during this vulnerable time. So let's talk about social connection. We need to re-establish relationships with our loved ones, our close and long-term friendships and we need a sense of community, of meeting people who have similar interest who we know as acquaintances now, but who might become friends in the future. Maybe some of us have exercise buddies, people we see in yoga class or at the gym, we need to regain those relationships, too. The challenge is on. Maintaining strong and weak bonds in an era where hugging, eating together and going to the movies is strictly out of the question. But wait, we need to redefine being together. We need to broaden our understanding of that concept. Being together means listening to one another.

So, perhaps during this time of quarantine we will need to sharpen our listening skills, an unintended benefit of these challenging times. We can listen on the telephone and we can listen through video conferencing. We can do most of our activities over video chat, which allows us to tell our stories, share our worries and talk about common interests. We can have dinner parties, happy hour, walking groups and movie time all by phone, or video. We can change our language from virtual happy hour to happy hour. The trick is that we have to feel committed to showing up for happy hour, in the same way we feel committed when we promise to meet a friend for a drink.

In other words, we need to prioritize our virtual activities as we used to prioritize our in-person activities. Isolation is bad for our mental health. There is no question about that. Isolation is vital for our physical health. There's also no question about that. And so we need a new language, a language which says, "Physical isolation is mandatory and social connection is also mandatory."

What are the action items that I want you to take from this podcast? Number one, fill up your calendar with social commitments, be they dinners, happy hours, shared movie watching or walking friends, where each friend goes on their solitary walk, but that the two of you are talking on the phone while walking. Number two, restore your calendar. If you had a book group, set it up virtually for the same time with the same host. If you are going to church or to synagogue, join a virtual group so that religion can return to your life. Number three, go outside and maintain social distance. Even seeing new and old faces from a distance will remind you that we are all in this together, and we are all trying to cope with the fear and uncertainty that surrounds us. Number four, meal times should be social. Make coffee, lunch and dinner dates with your friends and share meals over phone or video. Talk about what you're eating and how it's tasting. Talk about how you made the food, and where you got the food and what that was like for you. Talk about how these dates may be in person one day, but for now, this is how you wanna catch up with their lives.

And finally, number five, look at your calendar and take everything that was cancelled, including cultural events, sporting events, family events, work meetings, and ask yourself how you can modify those activities by using technology. To conclude, the natural response to being told to stay safe at home is to think of home as a place to hibernate until spring comes, or the danger passes. Don't do that. Stay safe and active at home. Use technology to replace in-person experiences. Prioritize that so that your mind, your body and your soul stay healthy. Thank you very much for your attention, and I look forward to hearing your feedback and I look forward to my next podcast. So stay tuned.