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What is the Psychological Impact of Social Distancing?

What is the Psychological Impact of Social Distancing?
May 9, 2020

In the fight against COVID-19 and its rapid spread, the human race is going to great lengths to ensure the safety and survival of ourselves and the ones we love. It seems that until we have an effective treatment or eventual vaccine, the best precaution and tool we have at our disposal is social distancing. Washing our hand and keeping a social distance is good common sense and pretty easy to implement in the name of safety. Because these measures are pretty simplistic, most of us have been dutifully complying. The worst we get from all the handwashing is some dry skin, which can be remedied with lotion. Social distancing, on the other hand, maybe having a negative cumulative impact that we are unaware of.

Our species has evolved over a couple hundred thousand years to be a highly cooperative and social creature just like our primate cousins. We have an innate and hard-wired need to be with each other and engage in physical touch. An interesting experiment by Harlow done in 1965 drives this point home (Harlow, 1965). In the study, a rhesus monkey baby was presented with the choice of two artificial surrogate mothers in its cage. The first was a wire monkey mother that had a bottle that would supply milk to the baby. The other surrogate mother provided no nourishment but was designed to be soft and comfortable having been made from terry cloth. Researchers were amazed that the baby monkey would forgo an active food source of nourishment to be able to cuddle with the soft terry cloth surrogate mother. The need for tactile and physical connection and comfort is an extremely powerful need that we all want fulfilled.

Social Isolation

There are countless studies demonstrating the toll that social isolation, alienation, and lack of physical contact has on humans that include a lot of research on Romanian and Russian orphans. As mature adults, our self-imposed isolation will not have the profound and sweeping impact that it does on infant development, but it still impacts us negatively. Many people are commenting and talking about the alienation they feel, the loneliness they are enduring, and loss of connection they normally feel to their social support groups. Hopefully, stay at home orders will begin to lift soon, but there is likely to be continued restrictions for gathering with friends and neighbors and continuation of social distancing guidelines.

We encourage you to combat the toll of social distancing where you can. Physical connection and touch will probably be limited to immediate family for the time being. Don’t be shy or afraid to ask for hugs and time to snuggle on the couch. These are basic human needs that we all have. Just as a physical connection is important, so is a mental and emotional connection. It is important that you reach out to the people you know and care about for both your benefit and for theirs too. Now more than ever is the time to go old school. Dial the phone number and spend some time talking. Just hearing another voice is much more impactful and meaningful than a text. No emojis compare to hearing tone and inflection in a person’s voice. If you struggle to let go of technology, then consider Skype or Facetime so you get both the visual and the auditory connection.

If isolation and alienation is getting the better of you and you would like to meet face to face, or via telehealth, with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists about treatment options, please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

 

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Harlow H. F., Dodsworth R. O., & Harlow M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.