Pascal Vrticka, a Lecturer in Psychology, at the University of Essex, explains how we can stay socially connected during this period.
Sputnik: How important is it for us to stay socially connected, especially as we head back into lockdown?
Dr Pascal Vrtička: Yes so social connection is important for us all the time. After all, we are social beings. We need meaningful interactions with others to stay physically and mentally healthy. And this is no different right now as we head back into lockdown. What of course is different right now is that we must physically distance which prevents us from meeting others as usual. And we, therefore, have to look for other ways of socially connecting with others. And one way of doing so right now, especially as the weather is turning cold and wet is to make use of virtual interaction tools. So, organize a virtual playdate for your children, a movie or gaming night with your mates or simply a chat with your loved one. It will not be exactly the same as before, of course, but recent social neuroscience evidence shows that interacting virtually with others can have similar effects on your body and brain like interacting in real life. So we should really make use of these tools that are available these days for us.
Sputnik: How does being socially connected benefit our health?
Dr Pascal Vrtička: Being socially connected positively influences our physical and mental health. So social connections make us worry less about potential dangers and feel less stressed. We also sleep better, have lower heart rate and blood pressure, our baseline energy requirement is lower and our immune system works more efficiently. Finally, we are also less prone to depression when we feel socially connected. However, there is one important issue to keep in mind here and this issue is that feeling socially connected is a strongly subjective inner experience. We can have a thousand friends but still feel lonely. It is not physical, objective social isolation that makes our body and mind ill, but our perceived social isolation and loneliness. This means that lockdown will affect each of us differently. And in turn, this, of course, means that we must identify and help those who suffer subjectively the most.
Sputnik: What other advice would you give to people to take care of their mental health during this period?
Dr Pascal Vrtička: Firstly, I think it may be helpful to know that there is something missing for many of us right now and that it is normal to not feel okay at this time. Many of us feel this way. So you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you having bad days, feeling the effects of the corona coaster, we are all riding. So be gentle to yourselves, be kind and look after yourself. Take a hot bath, a timeout from the news and social media or a walk or a run in the park. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. It may also help to cultivate a compassionate attitude towards others. So try to add a little extra kindness when interacting with your colleagues at work, with your kids' teachers, even with strangers at the grocery store or when driving. If you approach others with kindness and compassion, you activate your own positive emotion and reward-related brain areas and hormonal pathways. So you can literally make yourself feel better by being kind and helping others. And finally and very importantly do reach out when you feel that you cannot cope alone anymore or ideally already before. It is now our natural tendency to seek help if we feel overwhelmed, and it is our natural tendency to help others if they need us. So there will almost always be somebody to listen and help after all we are in this together. And our common strength is our most powerful tool to get through this.