In the year following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Netherlands, social distancing measures have resulted in a 45% increase in the experience of sadness for the 25-40 age group, and for young people this percentage was as much as 290%.
Of the 12+ population, 33% have started to exercise less, 19.5% started smoking more, and 29% have snacked more often, as the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics reports. A recent (2021) German study of chronic pain patients showed that their pain experience had increased by 46% since the first social distancing measures in the country.
So does social distancing automatically mean a more depressed, unhealthy and painful life?
Hope is no longer a strategy
Hands up if during the summer you still thought that the social distance and lockdown era would be over by now...? You are not alone. Who would have imagined how much could change in a few months, or how much could change in just over a year!
Where in the beginning we still may have seen the imposed safety measures as a welcome release from social obligations and we devoted ourselves to quality time, fixing the garden and joyfully pulled out board games, our mood is no longer that upbeat.
Just under two years ago we still naively hoped that it would all pass very soon, but we now know that hope is no longer a strategy. The COVID-19 virus is here to stay, and social distancing no longer feels like a welcome change, but like a denial of a much-needed necessity. Direct or perceived closeness to others has been exhaustively demonstrated as an important stakeholder in our happiness, recovery from illness, and relief from pain, as shown in the mentioned statistics.
What can we do?
So now what? December has (almost) arrived, and whereas pre-corona we still worried about what to cook for Thanksgiving, where to celebrate Christmas dinner and how to politely navigate between all the New Year's brunch invitations, after which we were allowed to collapse on January 1st due to a social overkill, we are now scratching our heads in confusion. How can we keep it fun and doable for ourselves in this situation of chaos and unpredictable changes with regards to our personal freedom to socialize?
Is there nothing we can do, now we’ve realized that the old normal isn't just waiting around the corner? Should we give up hope and accept that we will feel less healthy and happy as long as social distancing restrictions are in place? The good news is: you can definitely do something.
1. Seek professional help if you find yourself feeling down, anxious, or alone. Your GP may not always be available, but there are apps and platforms available that can offer online flexible help. The Mindler app (Europe) or Betterhelp.com (US) offer both a wide range of mental health professionals on demand, who can help you personally via an online connection. Aren’t you much of a talker and do you feel down or anxious? Download the free version of Mindfulness apps like Headspace of Calm, packed with meditations, stories and music. The exercises you will find there use science-based effective mindfulness strategies to reduce stress and worry, among other things.
2. Offer help - Bring it up in a conversation with a friend, family member or neighbor. By opening the conversation and taking the initiative, you increase the feeling of connection and happiness for yourself in a low-threshold way. This can be as simple as sending a weekly card to your grandmother, your parents or someone in your neighbourhood.
3. Find a Buddy: preferably not your partner, but a good friend or family member with whom you can talk. Because it can no longer be a secret that we really need each other, so we can now take a more structured approach by, for example, calling every Sunday afternoon. Tip: Let go of talking via Zoom! There is often a lot of unrest and distraction by talking (sometimes with groups) in this way. Just call each other, it's easier to listen and talk, while you get some fresh air outside.
4. Social Media: Whatever we might think of Mark Zuckerberg and consorts; Facebook remains a platform that is perfect for social connection. While Instagram is mainly focused on sharing images instead of stimulating interaction, Facebook offers a huge range of (private) discussion groups. Under the supervision of a moderator and group rules, you can safely exchange ideas and offer help with specific interests or problems. Expressing your support, or asking for support can be easily achieved in a very accessible way, possibly resulting in worldwide friendships!
5. Be your own best friend! I know it sounds corny, but in the end, the voice you'll always carry with you, no matter where you go, is your own. So better make sure you tell yourself good stuff. I know how hard it is to ignore that little critical voice, whispering stuff like: 'no one cares about you. You are just not important enough for others. You should have been better/ smarter/ worked harder' ... And that's not something to swipe under the carpet, but we always have the possibility to talk back to it, as if you would talk to your best friend, partner or child. You can say: 'I think you tried your best today, so kudos for effort. You are so much more than what you can share on Instagram. I love and support you no matter what, I've got you." Try this, just to see what happens with your mood. And let me know your findings!