Staying Connected During a Time of Isolation

Health and Wellness, Staff Perspectives

This past weekend, my husband and I sat on the couch as we watched a documentary on Netflix. A scene showed a room full of people at a party, all shaking hands and embracing. I turned to him and said, “Remember when we used to be able to shake hands with people?” We both gave a half-hearted laugh, even though neither of us thought it was very funny.

Jennifer Parks, LMSW, is the Clinical Assessment Specialist at The Arc of Monroe

Jennifer Parks, LMSW, Clinical Assessment Specialist

While this past year has been extremely difficult, it seems that most of us are feeling the impact of social isolation even more now that the holiday season has arrived. This is the time of year we are supposed to be gathering with friends and family, sharing gifts and meals, bringing the kids to see Santa, singing holiday songs and baking cookies together. For some people, decorating their homes, sending out cards and keeping traditions alive has helped them to cope with the difficulty of this past year. For others, the thought of doing these things without their family and friends by their side has been too difficult.

Humans are social beings. We seek out connection with others. The Canadian Mental Health Association states, “Connecting with others is more important than you might think. Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems. By neglecting our need to connect, we put our health at risk.” So how do we balance our need for connection and our desire to be safe and responsible?

Thankfully, technology has made it easier than ever to stay connected. We can chat with our loved ones on Zoom, play games like Words with Friends on our phones with others, and watch our favorite movies together with watch parties. For those of us who are not as tech savvy, we can also do things for others – bake a batch of cookies and leave some on a neighbor’s door step, contact a local agency that supports people such as individuals with disabilities or children in foster care and find out what their current needs are. Sometimes helping others is just the thing we need to lift our spirits.

But how about physical touch? Physical touch with others is an integral part of life. Now that these activities have been deemed off limits for the time being, it seems that we took for granted how much a hug, pat on the back or a high-five could do for us. Texas Medical Center describes what they call touch starvation, stating that not being able to physically touch others “increases stress, depression and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects. The body releases the hormone cortisol as a response to stress, activating the body’s “flight-or-fight” response. This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, and can suppress the digestive system and immune system—increasing the risk of infection.” Just what we need during a pandemic, right? So, what can we do during a time where we can’t physically be close to others? For starters, remember the importance of hugging the people in your home. We have spent so much time with our families this year that it is easy to let tensions run high, but taking a moment for a hug can have a big impact on our well-being. For those who live alone, sending a gift such as a pillow or soft blanket that a person can hold when they are feeling down can be helpful. Some stuffed animals even have the ability to add a recording of someone’s voice that is played when they are squeezed – a great option for children to send to grandparents who may be feeling especially isolated this year. Also, don’t forget your furry family members! Studies have shown that physical touch with a pet can have a positive impact on your blood pressure, can boost your mood and can help reduce stress.

2020 has been an extremely difficult year. We have all experienced trauma, and it is important to take care of ourselves. Brighter days are ahead, but it is important to remain diligent so we can all make it safely to the finish line. There will come a time where our homes are again filled with laughter, hugs and the continuation of meaningful traditions. In the meantime, take care of yourselves and those you love, and remember to seek out help if the stress becomes too much to manage.

Written by Jennifer Parks, LMSW, Clinical Assessment Specialist at The Arc of Monroe.