Human beings are social animals. While not everyone may be fond of crowds and everyone gets tired of dealing with co-workers, neighbors or even their friends, nearly all of us need regular human interaction.
Getting away from everything and everyone for a little while can be healthy, but an extended loss of contact from others can elevate stress, anxiety and depression.
That social isolation is for everyone’s best interests to slow and reduce the spread of COVID-19 doesn’t make it any easier.
“One of the challenges, when you’re socially isolating and depriving yourself of contact, is that it requires a certain amount of self-discipline,” said Sky Kershner, executive director of Kanawha Pastoral Counseling Center in Charleston.
Sitting on a couch, hour after hour, binge-watching Netflix eventually loses its novelty. Even if there are hundreds or thousands of potential choices, there’s really nothing on.
“It’s easy to get bored,” he said. “For some people, that can lead to some impulsive choices.”
They used to call it “cabin fever,” Kershner said.
The term comes from how some people cut off from the outside world, in a remote location for an extended period of time, might become irritable, restless and possibly paranoid.
In winter, they might flee the safety of their cabin during a snowstorm or otherwise put themselves or others in jeopardy.
In the thinnest of silver linings, Kershner pointed out that at least with the government’s directive for everyone to stay away from each other over the next several weeks, at least it’s happening in the mild, early spring and not during winter.
“It’s nice out. People can maybe get out and walk, enjoy nature a little more,” he said.
That’s the actual prescribed treatment for the condition — just go outside for a while, get some air and take a walk.
Kershner said he was concerned about the effect of social distancing on people who were already isolated before the coronavirus, who maybe don’t have the option to go outside.
“I know some folks, who are in assisted living/nursing homes, who are kind of shut in,” he said.
These were people whose slim, social interactions revolved around a schedule of institutional activities — dining, games and crafts.
“Now, they don’t have bingo,” Kershner said. “Loneliness is a problem. It was a problem before. Now, there’s a real, physical part to it.”
The rest of us might not realize we’re as lonely as we are. Kershner said we’re accustomed to being alone.
“A lot of other countries look at the U.S. as a very socially isolated country to begin with,” he said. “In Italy, for example, old and young people hang out. We don’t really do that here.”
There was a time when we did, but that’s slowly fallen away.
As a country, we celebrate self-reliance and personal space. Most of us spend a lot of time staring at our phones, trying to connect with people elsewhere, but disconnecting from the people around us.
Kershner said he believes how social media is typically used was probably a mixed bag for people who already feel anxious and isolated. While things like Facebook open up connections to vast numbers of people, they can often create false impressions about the lives of those people and encourage unrealistic comparisons, which can be demoralizing.
There’s also the aggravation of getting sucked into an unnecessary argument over a post or comment.
“Facebook can make you feel worse,” he said.
But, Kershner added, people were creative. There were ways to use social media to maintain a sense of community without stumbling down one rabbit hole or another.
“With our congregation we do a daily Zoom meeting,” he said. “We get together on the meeting platform at 7 p.m. every night, do the devotional thing and then share our events of the day.”
Kershner said for some of the people on the meeting, it might be the most interaction they have all day — but it’s been good for them.
“It’s really rewarding and fun,” he said.
Others are using digital conferencing programs like Zoom, GoToMeeting and Google Hangout for things like book clubs and even church services.
Mental health professionals and counselors are increasingly embracing telehealth practices, setting up counseling sessions with patients through things like FaceTime or even just talking on the phone.
“We’ve been offering telehealth for quarantined or self-quarantined patients – or just people unable to make it into the office for services,” said Frank Fazzolari, the director of The Counseling Connection in Charleston.
The Counseling Connection usually begins with in-person appointments before doing telehealth appointments, but sticking to that kind of requirement now would eliminate the ability for new people to seek mental health services.
Fazzolari acknowledged that telehealth wasn’t always ideal. Often when someone comes into counseling, they’re at the emotional end of a very trying time.
“What they may need is a hug or some type of physical contact,” Fazzolari said.
If they had a rapport with their therapist, someone they trusted, they might get that kind of contact, but right now, it’s just not possible.
“We’re trying to offer the same level of service as if they came into the office,” he said.
And if clients do come for services, Fazzlori added, “No physical contact. We don’t do hugs. We don’t shake hands.”
Kershner thought telehealth for people seeking mental health services or for people currently getting services was a good option.
“It might not be as effective if your doctor is five states away, but licensed to practice in West Virginia,” he said. “I think it’s an entirely different thing if it’s your doctor, the doctor you’ve been seeing here.”