Social isolation isn’t always a choice. But how you cope with it is.
“We don’t realize just how social beings we are until that contact is reduced or diminished because we can't leave our homes.”
There will always be times in our lives when, for reasons outside our control, we are forced to distance ourselves from others. Often, this is due to illness, or the risk of illness, but the truth is that the world has a way of surprising us, and we never quite know how or why we find ourselves in the situations that we do.
Fortunately, we are hardly the first people to confront such a challenge, and with the benefit of modern technology and comforts, we are surprisingly well equipped to combat the loneliness and cabin fever that inevitably accompanies it.
Today I’m sharing strategies for surviving social isolation. You may never know when you’ll need them, and you’ll be glad you have them in your back pocket when you do.
Social isolation is rough. It doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert.
The reason it is challenging is because social interaction is built into our DNA. Originally, it was a survival mechanism. As cavemen, we had greater strength in numbers, so the more social people were more likely to survive than those who kept to themselves.
Today, we still have that same ancient programming, and we continue to depend on social interaction for our happiness and well-being. In fact, it is so important that we decided to dedicate an entire YouTube channel to the topic!
As Laura Hawryluck, a critical care physician and associate professor at the University of Toronto, so articulately put it: “We don’t realize just how social beings we are until that contact is reduced or diminished because we can't leave our homes.”
So of course, our instinct when we are socially isolated is to seek sources of social contact. In today’s world, I think we all know where we are most likely to turn first.
Social media. I mean, common, it’s got “social” right there in its name. It’s built for this!
Well slow down there, cowboys and cowgirls!
What I’m about to share might rock your boat a bit, but I’m cool with that.
During periods of social isolation, the LAST place you should turn to is social media.
Think about it. If you are socially isolated due to a crisis, as soon as you plug into social media, you are guaranteed to be inundated with terrifying information on how the crisis is worsening. Not exactly a soothing experience.
But there’s a more fundamental reason why social media doesn’t work. Social media is designed to broadcast, not connect. It’s designed to give content as wide an audience as possible. And so, ask yourself, what feels more socially fulfilling to you: speaking to your best friend directly, or speaking to an entire auditorium of semi-acquaintances and all-out strangers?
Broadcasting to the masses, and consuming what the masses are putting out there, particularly knowing that their objective is to garner as much attention as possible, meaning much of it is grossly exaggerated or flat out fake, is a recipe for an even deeper sense of isolation.
That’s bad news, pun intended.
Give social media a rest and let’s instead take a look at a few far more rewarding ways to combat social isolation:
Write a letter
Yes, an actual letter. Post it in the mail and wait to get one back!
Do you have a friend who you used to write letters to? Do you have a friend who might like to receive a letter from you?
Perfect. Take out a piece of paper or make a nice card DIY and get to it! Since so much of our day is spent typing it’s a nice refreshing change to take a pen in your hand and write.
What do you write about? Maybe talk about social isolation and how you’re combatting it, the world, and other musings. The point is to spend some time carefully penning something nice that your friend will receive. You can even ask them ahead of time to be pen pals. Why not? At least for the duration of the social isolation.
The important thing about this is that the very act of writing itself is soothing. When you write, your mind keeps you company, and the image in your head of the person to whom you are writing also keeps you company, and all of this gets your mind focused on engaging with someone that matters to you rather than worrying about what’s going on outside of your control.
There’s no wonder that writing is often suggested as a treatment for depression and anxiety.
Get a pen and paper and see for yourself.
Write a Long Email
If a pen and paper aren’t readily available, email is a great alternative.
Email allows for much of the cathartic benefits of writing while also offering a bit more immediacy and the opportunity to really dig into a topic.
You aren’t constrained by the size of the envelope or the cramping muscles in your hands, so if you have something to say, oh boy can you say it.
Normally, we recommend keeping emails as short as you possibly can while still conveying what you need to convey. But when your goal is to stave off the loneliness of social isolation, you can ignore that advice.
The objective here is to open a topic of conversation, or even multiple topics, without any endgame in mind. You share, they share back, and that is enough.
Choose subjects you are both passionate about, anything that really gets you on your soap box. That will ensure lots of heated back and forth, which is perfect for the occasion! Discuss, philosophize, disagree, make bold claims.
If no topic comes to mind, find a compelling article or book and discuss that. Kind of like a book club! You can even send them some questions or thoughts you have and go from there.
Make Lengthy, Unessential Phone Calls
By unessential, I mean that you are not calling for any specific purpose other than to say hello and exchange your feelings and experiences.
Too often these days our conversations are relegated to choppy snippets in texting apps. Rarely do we turn to the phone when we have convenient asynchronous communication channels.
But what makes the phone inconvenient is also what makes it beautiful. Yes, it requires both people to be available. More important, it requires both people to be present, at least more than a text message does.
It allows both interlocuters to engage in spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, the way our ancient human software is accustomed to, and that process releases a cocktail of wonderful chemicals that make us feel good and cared for.
So call up your grandma. Or parents. Or siblings. Or a relative. Or a friend who lives in another state or country. And have a long, unhurried conversation. Get into the details. All the details. Relish the time that you have to elaborate on the intricacies of life.
Upgrade to Video Chats
Video chats bring all the advantages of phone calls with the added sensory benefit of seeing the person.
This opens up a whole new level of social interaction and can meaningfully enrich the experience. Suddenly, not only are you enjoying a conversation, but you also feel more of their presence.
You can even do fun things like have a meal together. Just set the cameras up on your table, lay out your food, perhaps a cup of tea, and engage with one another as if you were sitting across the table at a restaurant.
This of course isn’t limited to meals. Grab a puzzle, read a book aloud, cook something together, or even fire up the karaoke. Treat it like you were in the room together and pass the time however you please!
The point is, once you treat their video presence like their physical presence, you begin to benefit in a similar way to them actually being there.
Sure, it’s not really the same thing, but it’s a heck of a lot better than nothing!
So there we have it, four great ways to ward of the loneliness of social isolation that will keep you far away from social media.
Let’s quickly recap:
- Write a real, paper letter, with your hands and ink and all of that. Just the act of writing has therapeutic benefits.
- Send an epic email. Find the juiciest most enlightening topic you can think of and really dig into it.
- Make totally unnecessary calls, the kind where absolutely nothing is accomplished other than you making each other feel better.
- Upgrade to video chat and make a full-blown virtual get-together out of it: music, tea, coffee, cake, candles and all!
A fun way to look at this is to treat each of these strategies as a little quest. Try completing one a day and see how it goes.
Keep at it and you’ll start to feel much better and less socially isolated. We’re lucky that we live in a time when we have many ways to stay in touch with the people we care about.
Social isolation is tough, but it is temporary, and it’s in our power to make it a heck of a lot more enjoyable than it sounds.
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I would love to hear about how you are surviving social isolation. What’s been working? What challenges have you encountered? Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
Happy Explearning ⚡