Social-distancing and self-isolation are not new concepts to those living with chronic illness. The moment our compromised immune systems show signs of distress we begin to separate ourselves from the pack. We feel vulnerable because we know our bodies might not have what it takes to fight off infection or protect us from viruses. We know that if we get sick, we may get hit harder or take longer to recover. This can feel overwhelming, so even if we want to keep moving in a forward direction toward friends and family, some of us tend to pull back and stay home where it feels safe rather than expose ourselves to potential problems.
Self-isolation is not always a conscious choice. Disconnection from the community can start out slowly, retreating from loved ones by turning down invitations and canceling plans because of the unpredictability of symptoms. Fear and uncertainty about the future begin to guide decisions. The progression of disease widens the chasm because we feel we are losing common ground with people. Sometimes we try our hardest to keep up with the functioning world, but health issues sideline us anyway.
Guilt can contribute to isolation because we don’t want to annoy or disappoint anyone if plans need to be changed to accommodate us and the burden of keeping up “the big lie” that everything is okay, gets to be too much. It’s easy to slip into complacency and accept that this self-inflicted confinement is okay because we don’t realize how much we are limiting ourselves. Others raise fists in protest and work to break free from their shrinking worlds by changing their behaviors and challenging themselves to develop deeper relationships within their communities.
In some ways, people living with chronic illnesses might be better equipped to deal with the current government self-quarantine restrictions due to coronavirus. We are used to uncertainty and ever-changing circumstances. We’ve already had to re-access our priorities and adjust our schedules to more home-based activities. We have explored new hobbies and developed new interests that can be implemented indoors. We can entertain ourselves and are used to our own company. But it’s human nature to crave companionship. We all feel the need to relate to others and have a sense of belonging. Living in isolation and the new social distancing measures can make us feel like we’re losing that connection.
One of the most devastating effects of isolation is loneliness. A prolonged lack of interaction with others can have devasting effects on mental and physical health. Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a weaker immune system, poor sleep quality, anxiety, and depression.1 In a time when we’re all self-quarantining to some degree or another, it’s important to implement strategies to stay connected to the outside world to reduce feelings of perceived loneliness. There is a difference between being alone and feeling alone.
My favorite way to feel connected to the world is to get outside in nature and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. Something about being in the great outdoors reminds me that the universe is so much bigger than myself and whatever I’m going through. Practicing social-distancing guidelines on my daily exercise walk lets me interact with people in a together but separate sort of way. Rather than catching up with people on the phone, try face to face video chats with for a more personalized experience. Eye contact and a smile go a long way to combat loneliness and make us feel acknowledged and more in synch with others. Practice self-care strategies like journaling, listening to music, meditating, yoga, and exercise to maintain mental and physical health. Communicate with words and expressions rather than through touch. Remember to reach out to those who might need some support.
Never again will I take a hug or holding hands for granted. A simple hug can release feel-good hormones in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin-all of which help boost the immune system and ward off illness.2 Physical touch matters. It’s important for social development and emotional attachment and is a fundamental necessity for people to thrive. Staying healthy has become a global priority and fear of an uncertain future has become the norm for everyone. We are living in a different world. If we’re lucky, it will be one where we have a greater appreciation for the people we love and the simple things we take for granted like our health and our freedom.