Two Ohio Wesleyan University psychology professors explained how to maintain one’s social connections during this stressful time at an online panel discussion held Monday.
“Social Distance, Not Social Isolation: Staying Connected During COVID-19” featured Kira Bailey and Vicki DiLillo discussing best practices from a scientific perspective. It was the 13th of 24 free classes on the novel coronavirus offered by Ohio Wesleyan.
“COVID has impacted our social connections,” Bailey said. This has been sensory-based, in terms of vision and touch. “There has been a lot of turmoil and troubles in the past few months. However, it has hit some of us harder than others.”
From a neuroscience perspective, social support has positive effects on health, Bailey said. Conversely, prolonged stress can lead to negative effects.
Social connection is important, said DiLillo. Loneliness increases the potential of physical and cognitive problems, she said. Social isolation is twice as bad for one’s health as obesity, researchers have said.
Psychologists are able to measure social connections from a structural, quality-related and functional perspective.
The psychologists gave a number of tips to stay connected. The first five focused on the use of technology.
Tip 1 is to engage and not just interact while on social media, Bailey said. For example, that means having a text-based conversation instead of merely liking something. While a face-to-face conversation is best for social connections, using emojis in your texts can be helpful.
Tip 2 is to use technology in helpful ways, DiLillo said. She cited studies that younger people using social media less frequently are more productive, while older people spending more time online feel more connected.
Tip 3 is to stop using your devices at least 30 minutes before going to sleep, Bailey said. Studies show this curfew gives your brain time to adjust to a restful state.
Tip 4 is to have unstructured time at work and at home, DiLillo said. For example, she said you could share a virtual happy hour, meal, or movie with a friend via social networks.
Tip 5 is to create new habits, such as working from home only in a particular room, Bailey said. We are creatures of habit which helps the brain rest for important tasks, she said. Fortunately, the brain is flexible enough to adapt to other habits. In addition, the brain is pre-wired for being good at social connections.
The last couple tips were more general in nature.
Tip 6 is to express gratitude, DiLillo said. One can write down what they’re grateful for on a weekly basis or express this gratitude to the people in your life.
Tip 7 is helping others. This can be by supporting a charity, a loved one or a stranger. This activates reward centers in the brain, Bailey said.
Tip 8 is to use mental health counseling if you or a loved one is struggling, DiLillo said. Many insurers cover these services, she said.
“Many, if not most mental health providers, have adapted to online services,” DiLillo said. “They are as effective as in-person visits.”
In addition, DiLillo said you can ask a loved one for support, but to consider whether they may be helpful during this unusual time. “Think about the support you need and their skill set.”
There was nearly a half-hour of questions for the professors, provided by moderator Franchesca Nestor. In response to one question, both professors said social connection may be even more important to those who are hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic because of loneliness from quarantining. The more social support one has, the more protected one feels, Bailey said.
DiLillo said it is important to support frontline health care providers, who are dealing with a lot more stressors from their work these days. “Don’t be shy to give them a nudge if you think they need professional support,” she said.
Bailey said she recommended the science magazine Neuroscience News for those interested in learning more about the brain.
“I always tell my students being human is a whole-brain process,” said Bailey, adding it is a myth that we only use 10% of our brain most of time — the entire brain is always in use but some areas of the brain may be more active, though.
Monday’s hour-long virtual class began week seven of a 10-week, free online course called “We’re in This Together: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Taught by 24 Ohio Wesleyan faculty members, the course is open to students and the public alike.
OWU spokespersons said more 1,200 people are participating in the class, and more than 350 people are taking part in a Facebook COVID-19 Class Discussion Group.
For more information about OWU’s “We’re in This Together” course, visit www.owu.edu/COVIDclass.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.