Distant Socializing- Important For Health And Sanity

  • Maintaining physical distancing is important to prevent the spread of coronavirus but it may come with a heavy emotional cost;
  • Use technology such as FaceTime, chat, messaging, or even an old-fashioned phone call to remain socially connected;
  • Stanford professor Jamil Zaki calls this “distant socializing” and it will be very important in the coming weeks;

I live in Northern California and on a typical Sunday morning our downtown in San Mateo is filled with dog walkers, fitness enthusiasts, folks walking for brunch, coffee and tea, etc. But these are not ordinary times and the photo in this post shows our downtown on March 22, 2020.  Clearly, there’s a lot of physical distancing going on, and tons of closed storefronts.

As we move into the coming weeks I want to point out that as of today the best weapon in the fight against spreading coronavirus is physical distancing. Whenever possible maintain at least a 6 foot space between you and the next person.  Wash your hands or use hand sanitizers frequently. I hope we have other tools available to us soon but for now this is the reality.

There is a negative aspect of the commonly used term “social distancing”, in that it means people can be come emotionally disconnected from one another. This can result in worsening mental health issues, loneliness, and depression. I’ve linked here to an outstanding article from Stanford professor Jamil Zaki who urges we use technology to stay connected to others. He calls this “distant socializing”.

Physical Distancing Is Important

As of today about one fourth of Americans are being required to shelter in place. While this is necessary in our current framework for preventing the spread of disease it also “runs counter to human beings’ fundamental need for connection with one another”, according to Dr. Zaki. During challenging times people feel an urge to comfort and be comforted by each other.

Physical Distance Can Create Loneliness And Depression

Dr. Zaki suggests that the phrase “social distancing” was the wrong term to begin with and he recommends that we reframe the phrase as “physical distancing”. This is more than just a semantic distinction as it allows us to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while staying physically apart.

Using Technology To Stay Connected

Interestingly the same technologies that we often blame for pulling apart the fabric of American society might be our best chance now to stay together. FaceTime and other live video chat services can be our friends right now.  There seems to be something powerful about the video aspect of this synchronous communication that is very beneficial from an emotional standpoint.

If you don’t have access to a video platform there are many other text based chat and messaging services that can be extremely helpful. For these platforms the real time communication with others seems to be the key component.Logo

Online gaming with a live community is another outstanding way of maintaining connection.

And finally there is good old-fashioned voice calling. My parents are both in their late 80s and while they have smart phones they far prefer a two minute live phone call to anything that we could do digitally.

If you’re in a part of the country that has required physical distancing please make sure that you find a way to stay emotionally connected to those who you care about.


By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

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