Recently, billions of people around the world have been urged to start practicing social distancing. Not being able to see your friends or extended family can make it harder to feel connected to your loved ones. However, social distancing doesn’t mean you have to be socially isolated. Thanks to the technology available in our modern world, there are still plenty of ways to avoid loneliness while social distancing.
According to HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration), about 20% of Americans report feeling lonely or socially isolated. (1) Modern research has found that feeling socially isolated may negatively impact the body's optimal health. (2)
In this article, we’re going to look at the scientific connection between your body and your mind, and how you can improve your overall health simply by changing your mindset. We'll also give you some tips to help reduce stress, and encourage tranquility while social distancing.
The Mind-Body Connection
Throughout most of history, practitioners of medicine sought to treat the mind and body holistically. However, it wasn’t until recently that scientists came to understand how your autonomic nervous system links your mind and body together.
How Stress and Social Isolation Affects Your Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system—responsible for the involuntary functions of the human body —has two parts, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. (3) These two systems are activated in times of reaction or recovery. Sympathetic activation leads to a “fight or flight” response, and parasympathetic activation leads to a “rest and digest” response.
When you’re dealing with a stressful situation, your body produces hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to turn on your sympathetic system and help you navigate the threat. It has effects on your body such as:
Increasing your heart rate
Increasing sugar breakdown by your liver
Suppressing your immune system
Dilating your pupils
In addition, research has found that loneliness and feelings of social isolation can also trigger activation of your sympathetic nervous system, along with an increase of your stress hormones. (6)
If you’re chronically stressed, your sympathetic nervous system remains activated for weeks or months, which can compromise your health. (5)
Without its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system, the regulation of everyday stressors would be impossible. This system plays a vital role in maintaining both mental and physical health by helping the body to calm down from stressful situations. This is why it is important to do activities that will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to help your body rest. Relaxing activities like yoga and meditation help you activate this branch of your nervous system. (4)
Staying Positive While Social Distancing
Every person needs a different amount of social interaction for optimal well-being. Your mindset may also play a big role in how you adapt to a situation. You’ve likely heard of the ‘placebo effect’, but you may not have heard of the ‘nocebo effect’.
The nocebo effect is essentially the opposite of the placebo effect. If you have negative expectations of a situation, you’re more likely to experience negative results or experience pain due to your expectations.
For example, many clinical trials of drugs are divided into two groups: people taking the drug and people taking a sugar pill placebo. The people in the study don’t know if they are taking the drug or placebo. People who take the placebo often report feeling side effects because they have the expectation that the drug may cause complications. (7)
When it comes to social distancing, keeping a positive mindset and making an effort to stay connected with your loved ones can help improve your perspective of the situation. According to a 2013 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Being alone does not essentially make a person lonely. It is the perception of being alone which makes the person lonely.” (8)
Ways to Calm Your Mind During Social Distancing
Just because you’re socially distancing yourself doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself or compromise your mental health. Here are some ways you can calm your mind and body while social distancing.
Make Relaxing Activities Part of Your Daily Habits
As we’ve already mentioned, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are linked to increased sympathetic nervous system activity. Including more relaxing activities in your daily schedule may help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system and make you feel happier and more relaxed.
The following activities may help you feel more relaxed: (9)
Deep Breathing. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax.
Guided Meditation. Many apps offer free recordings of calming scenes and stories. Closing your eyes and following along to these recordings is a great way to unwind.
Yoga or Tai Chi. Both of these types of activities are great ways to calm your mind while also improving your physical health. There are a wide range of classes you can now find online.
Journaling. Taking some time to write about how you’re feeling may help to bring structure to your day, while calming your mind and making you feel more at peace.
Stay in Contact with Friends and Family
Even though you may feel disconnected from your friends and family while social distancing, there are many ways you can stay in contact with your loved ones. Scheduling phone calls or video chats regularly is a great way to stay in touch and feel connected. Instead of text messaging, some people find that sharing voice notes helps them add a more personal touch to their communication.
Keep a Routine
If you’re not going into work or if your regular routine has been disrupted, it’s easy to waste time on unimportant activities like aimlessly scrolling through social media. Building a routine can take the guesswork and uncertainty out of our day, which can help us to feel more in control and less stressed.
Schedule Time for Things that Make You Happy
Even if you’re spending most of your time at home, there are still plenty of fun activities you can do. The following are just a few ideas.
Cooking and Baking. If you’re somebody who likes to cook or bake, using this time of social distancing is the perfect time to try a new healthy recipe. You can check out our top three recipes to support a healthy inflammatory response here. If you feel a bit lethargic, you can also try our three favorite savory recipes to boost your energy levels.
Painting or Drawing. Taking your time to work on your artwork may give you something to focus your attention on while social distancing. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, boost creativity by doing a DIY craft.
Watching Funny Movies. Watching funny movies or standup comedies is a great way to improve your mood and reduce stress. Research has found that laughing can decrease levels of your stress hormone cortisol, as well as boost happy hormones, like endorphins. (10)
Practice an Instrument. If you have a musical instrument at home that has been collecting dust, this may be the time for you to fine-tune your talent.
There are plenty of great at-home workouts you can do while social distancing. Setting some time aside each day to exercise will help you increase your blood flow and feel more energized. According to the NHS, regular exercise is linked to an overall improvement in health and vitality. (11)
Here are a few exercises to get you started.
On the spot running
Water jug biceps curls
Social distancing isn’t easy, but finding ways to stay active and stimulate your mind can help you maintain your health while staying at home. Stress and social isolation can have negative impacts on your immune system. Make sure you are doing everything you can to allow your body to “rest and digest”, maintain a healthy diet, and find ways to stay active while staying at home.
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