Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 23, 2020
Selective social networks and active social media engagement can minimise the mental health effects of COVID-19-induced isolation
Overcoming social distancing blues

A report published in The Lancet in 2018 aptly showcased the depth of the mental health crisis the world is confronted with. The report, compiled by 28 health experts criticised the sidelining of mental health by deeming it as a “collective failure to respond to this global health crisis that results in monumental and avoidable suffering”. This collective failure has manifested in troubling signs of declining mental health in the world. For instance,  a national survey gauging loneliness levels in the US found that 79 percent of ‘Gen Z’ers, 71 percent of the millennials and 50 percent of baby boomers reported feeling lonely, while the rate of people engaging in community activities  reduced from 75 to 57 percent in the last decade. How does this pretext of vulnerability to mental health issues get affected by the global pandemic we all face?

Most health experts have advised citizens to engage in social distancing as a means to “flatten the curve” to contain the virus. With health experts being cautious about providing any timelines as to when life could return to normalcy, it is important to understand the mental health implications of social distancing and ways in which one can work towards improved mental health in the context of a pandemic.

It is important to first demystify the term and distinguish it from other related concepts like isolation and social alienation. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), social distancing entails “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately six feet) from others when possible”. Thus, unlike social isolation and social alienation, social distancing solely refers to keeping physical distance and must not lead people to disconnect emotionally. Feeling lonely, considered by many as a byproduct of acts like social distancing, is a state of mind rooted in human perception. Thus, loneliness is a perceived inadequacy in social relations that may be felt even if social life is not curtailed by a virus. Nonetheless, social distancing  may go against the basic human instincts for seeking physical contact , making loneliness a likely consequence. 

Lack of control as a contributor to learned helplessness 

Individuals do not feel like they are in control of a situation when confronted with a global pandemic. Thus, this perceived lack of control over the situation and perceived inability in shaping the outcome has a huge role in contributing to feelings of anxiety and helplessness. As noted by Dr Alloway, “It’s not in our control. Control is a big part of what makes us feel healthy. In my own research, I found that autonomy is linked to depression”. Thus, when practicing social distancing, many may not understand the ramifications of their actions and believe they exert very little control in controlling the pandemic. This lack of agency in dealing with a pandemic can thus adversely affect the mental health of those practicing social distancing.

Hormonal imbalances

Social distancing requires resisting physical touch and close contact. Human touch is an integral component of socialisation and enables the release of hormones contributing to feelings of pleasure and comfort felt in social interactions. The body releases the oxytocin hormone when humans engage in close physical contact. This “bonding hormone is a neurotransmitter responsible for forging trust and social recognition between people that stands compromised during social distancing. Moreover, human touch also stimulates the vagus nerve that runs through the entire human body and helps in slowing the heartbeat when stressed. Michael Murphy, postdoctoral research associate at Carnegie Mellon University, states, “consensual touch from a partner reduces feelings of distress when you’re facing something difficult and helps the immune system work better and might even trigger the release of oxytocin and your body’s natural painkillers”. Thus, the positive impact human touch has on the secretion of hormones responsible for mental well-being shall be compromised due to distancing.

Collective Effervescence

The most important precaution to take while practicing social distancing is to avoid mass gatherings. These mass gatherings  provide a shared experience that has important implications for social fulfillment. French sociologist Emile Durkheim discussed the sociological benefits of religious worship and the joyful intoxication people feel in group worship which he termed as collective effervescence. Durkheim noticed that when people came together with this shared sense of unified purpose, a certain “electricity” is created, making the participants feel a high degree of collective excitement that is transcendental and comparable to feeling the presence of an “extraordinary force”. While Durkheim spoke of this phenomenon only in reference to religious gatherings, this concept has found widespread applicability to events like concerts, viewing large sporting events and even participating in fandoms or cults. Thus, with mass gatherings being discouraged, avenues to experience “collective effervescence” are dwindling and will adversely affect perceived quality of social interactions and heighten feelings of loneliness among those accustomed to being part of such gatherings. With Indian society being largely  collectivistic, the importance of shared experience in our unique cultural context is all the more central to how we socialise.

Misinformation fuelling a fear psychosis in India

While taking precautionary measures at curbing the spread is imperative, a fear psychosis due to unverified and exaggerated claims of how it spreads must also be prevented. A wave of inaccurate news regarding  the scope and implications of the virus has been circling social media platforms in India. From advocating home remedies without proving its efficacy to messages that urge people to not eat ice-cream in order to resist the virus, Indian citizens are being overwhelmed with news-both real and fake, regarding this virus and how to deal with it.  This misinformation coupled with a society that urges people to put the family ahead of the self could explain the recent cases of coronavirus patients committing suicide.

Mr Bala Krishna, a father of three allegedly took his own life due to a debilitating fear that he would transmit the virus to his family. He is thought to be the first case of suicide related to the virus outbreak anywhere in the world.  He was convinced he had the virus due to the videos he saw online.“My father kept on watching coronavirus-related videos the whole day and went on saying he has similar symptoms and that he was infected with the deadly virus” his son remarked. Thus, a fear psychosis due to constant exposure to the news led Mr Bala Krishna to self diagnose and eventually take his life as he feared his presence put his family’s health in jeopardy.Thus, a fear psychosis pertaining to the virus may push people especially from collectivistic societies like India to take their life to protect their family. Unfortunately, there has been another case of suicide related to the virus reported in India which indicates the dire need for bolstering mental health services to patients and their families dealing with the virus along with curbing the spread of misinformation regarding the scope of the pandemic.

How should we take care of mental well-being during social distancing? 

It is important to leverage the ‘benefits of living’ in the digital age. With the accessibility to video conferencing, face-to-face contact with loved ones must be prioritised, even if it is from a distance.

Social media and mental health have a complex relationship. Most contemporary researchers studying how social media affects mental health argue that the nature of social media use shall determine whether it has a positive or negative impact on mental health. For instance, a study by Frison and Eggermont (2015) found differential effects of Facebook use on adolescents’ well-being depending on whether the use was “active” or “passive”. Active use, which involved exchanging direct messages with friends, had positive effects, while passive use that included merely looking at other people’s posts had negative effects on overall mental wellbeing. Thus, pertaining to the use of social media, it is imperative that active use that involves direct contact, preferably through video chats, is encouraged over passively consuming other people’s lives through the internet.  Dr Tracy Alloway, a professor of Psychology at North Carolina University, encourages both active and positive use of social media: “Don’t feel like the social distancing is making you feel isolated. We may feel a physical isolation, but the great thing about our world today is that we’re so connected. I can call a friend, you know, across the world, and you don’t have to worry about the geography of it all.”

Apart from the constructive use of social media, doing things that reassert a sense of control to the individual is imperative. As noted earlier, a perceived lack of control in dealing with a pandemic is a major stressor. Thus, activities like washing hands regularly and ensuring personal hygiene has important psychological benefits. Apart from keeping you safe from the virus, these actions also reinstate the sense of control back to the self and reduce the anxieties associated with a perceived lack of agency over outcome.  Another great way to deal with the distancing is to make small pacts with a close group of trusting people. As noted by Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, if two-three households are strict about maintaining social distance from the outside world, then this group of households can socialise and mutually support each other to combat feelings of alienation and isolation.

In these strange times, it is imperative to remember that loneliness and feelings of alienation are rooted in perception and not solely a product of physical distance. While social distancing could surely expose human vulnerabilities to such concerns, maintaining social intimacy through small social groups, and seeking intimacy through video conferencing are some crucial ways in which we can restore our sanity in times of a global pandemic.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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