How social distancing affects a social species: A survey-based study of high school students

Public health experts have concluded that coronavirus is one of the greatest threats of this century. In the last month, our cities have transformed from busy hubs of commerce and activity into ghost towns. It’s clear that the world will be impacted by this pandemic for many years to come. Yet, paralleling the havoc outside, this chaos has impacted our personal lives as well. Unemployment and medical bills are compounding the stress people are experiencing. Furthermore, as social distancing is becoming widely practiced, many are finding it difficult to cope with this newfound sense of isolation.

Coronavirus has left many cities empty, as if they were ghost towns. Source: Unsplash.

Mental health in face of the coronavirus

Given the rapid escalation of COVID-19, there isn’t much data available* describing the mental health situation on a larger scale. Hence, I decided to assess the situation myself by constructing a survey tool to learn about the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on high-schoolers. I reached out to 43 random students at high schools around the country, out of which 37 (86%) agreed to be part of this mini-study.

The COVID-19 mental health survey asked questions asking about the different ways social distancing has affected students’ lives, including their mental health. You can view this questionnaire on Google Forms

The results of this survey were expected in some ways but startling in others. For instance, 72% of students reported that increased technology use had helped them cope with the absence of face-to-face interactions with others, but 67% felt that technology, by itself, was insufficient to assuage their sense of disconnection. Furthermore, 95% reported that social distancing had increased their levels of anxiety. 25% of respondents had an underlying condition of depression and anxiety and felt that social distancing had extremely exacerbated it.

72% of respondents feel more isolated from friends and family as a result of social distancing. Source: COVID-19 mental health survey.

Considering that humans are social creatures, the negative effects of social distancing may not be entirely unexpected; through millions of years of evolution, the social and behavioral aspects of humans’ brains have become deeply interconnected, and as a result, many are finding it difficult to rapidly transition to a state of perceived near-isolation. Although that people are experiencing stress may be unsurprising, the true extent of this tension may be unexpected. Initially, I hypothesized that extroverts would be more affected by social distancing than introverts, and while this may be true to some degree, the survey indicates that almost all people are affected: Despite this being a small-scale questionnaire with only 37 respondents, the figure reporting that 95% of respondents felt “highly increased stress” suggests a much broader impact and could be too significant to overlook.

Social distancing certainly isn’t the only cause underlying our anxiety in this time period. For example, the labor department reported that 3.2 million Americans have filed for unemployment; financial difficulties can add to the ongoing anxiety of worrying for one’s safety and that of their family. Students, as reflected by the survey, face additional difficulties as well: managing the future of their education, switching to online learning systems, and even food insecurity due to the closure of schools and universities, with their reduced lunch programs.

On a broader level, since everyone around us faces a unique situation—from students to employees to veterans—we can’t pin down a single “factor” responsible for someone’s anxiety; rather, people are facing different circumstances depending on their respective situations. From a public health perspective, this makes the mental health situation harder to address: How can you help the millions affected when each faces a unique circumstance?

There is no easy way to answer this question—if there were, we’d already have heard it by now.

Yet, there are some ways that one can mitigate one’s distress on a more individual level. While these techniques may not work for everyone, having a selection to choose from allows us to identify the ones that do.

Techniques for staying on top of your mental health

1. Keep a daily routine

Maintaining a daily schedule has multiple benefits that can improve several aspects of your life. For one, it keeps your circadian rhythms—your body’s biological clock—synchronized with other aspects of your day, which can help you feel active and productive rather than lethargic. In a time when most jobs and schools have moved to remote work, it may be challenging to maintain the same level of productivity at home, but keeping a routine helps ensure tasks don’t slip through the cracks. Secondly, having a daily routine during stressful times can give one a subconscious feeling of constancy, which can be a welcome reprieve from the chaotic world outside.

2. Practice mindfulness

The technique of mindfulness originated as a Buddhist teaching thousands of years ago, but many are finding it useful today. At first glance, “practicing mindfulness” may seem like something only a monk in a monastery would do, but it can be applicable in our lives as well. To be mindful simply means to observe one’s thoughts and emotions as they float in and out of the mind, in order to gain a deeper sense of self-understanding. With this newfound depth, one is more likely to find peace within oneself, even as tumult rages outside. You can read more about this on the recent Vox article “‘Our calm is contagious’: How to use mindfulness in a pandemic.

3. Remember that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation

Despite being physically distanced from one’s friends and loved ones, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still connect with them. Today, we have access to the most advanced technology of any human civilization, so we should make full use of these tools. FaceTime your friends (and family, if you’re not living with them). Text them about your day. Call them on the phone. While past generations suffered through similar pandemics (e.g., the Spanish Flu of 1918), they didn’t have the luxury to remain verbally connected with others despite being physically separated. Our technological advantages give us a unique opportunity to mitigate this perceived isolation.

4. Look for positive moments in the eye of the storm

While the chaos rages on in the world about us, we can find strength in our communities to come together and unite in their response to coronavirus. I’ve seen this firsthand: my community came together over the past few weeks to support each other in many small ways. For instance, my neighbors and my mom are offering to shop for elderly families, who are more at risk for coronavirus, in my neighborhood. It’s devastating to see how people’s lives are being affected by this pandemic, yet I find hope and inspiration in people’s efforts to step up and uplift others around them.

Concluding Remarks

For the world outside, the path ahead lies riddled with difficulties as we face the most imminent threat of our lifetime. In face of this situation, we must find strength in ourselves and the bonds we’ve cultivated with our loved ones. While coronavirus is an unprecedented test of these bonds, I hope that we find ourselves in a few months with a renewed appreciation of and commitment to supporting our communities, on both individual and state levels.

*as of March 28, 2020

Further reading

Grey, Emma. “What Coronavirus Isolation Could Do To Your Mind (and Body).” Wired , Wired, 25 Mar. 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-covid-19-isolation-psychology/.

Samuel, Sigal. “‘Our Calm Is Contagious’: How To Use Mindfulness In A Pandemic.” Vox, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/3/18/21181644/coronavirus-covid-19-mindfulness-meditation-anxiety.

Sharp, John. “How To Not Practice Emotional Distancing During Social Distancing – Harvard Health Blog.” Harvard Health Blog, 17 Mar. 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-not-practice-emotional-distancing-during-social-distancing-2020031719222.

Featured image source: CalMatters.

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