Texas Tech University

Social Distancing Shouldn't Mean Social Isolation

Glenys Young

April 2, 2020

Psychologist Joseph Currin suggests focusing on what you can do to stay connected.

Joseph Currin doesn't like "social distancing."

Not the act – that he's entirely in favor of at such a critical time. No, as a psychologist, Currin doesn't like the phrase.


"It's physical distance, not social," he explained, "because we want to maintain social contact. Yes, we're keeping the physical distance between us, but that doesn't mean you can't still emotionally connect."

Not only can you emotionally connect, you should, emphasizes Currin, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University. Otherwise, the mental health effects of isolation can become severe.

"If I took any person and said, 'Stay in bed all day, don't take a shower and don't eat healthy,' no matter who that person is, they're going to be depressed," Currin said. "The effects of isolation can feel a lot like depression, because what happens when people isolate is they literally withdraw, and that withdrawal is not what we want. We have to be more mindful and intentional about engaging because of what we're doing."

Currin said many people are feeling a sense of loss right now, from the loss of experiences they were looking forward to as events are canceled to the loss of community they may feel being away from friends and co-workers. College students also may be feeling the loss of their independence and their university lifestyles.

Even while students are missing their university lifestyles and friends, it's important to remember that maintaining physical distance from others is literally a life-saving measure.

"Developmentally speaking, they're supposed to be establishing themselves as adults now," Currin says. "That's really where their development has led them to, which is why they left home, why they've gone to school, and now the brakes have been hit, and they're back home. Now, granted, they might go home for the summer, but that's different than, 'You have to go home and stay home.' Now, it does feel like a lot of the stuff that was developmentally appropriate, that they were ready for, has been removed from them completely."

But, while missing their lifestyles and friends, he said, it's important to remember that maintaining physical distance from others right now is literally a life-saving measure.

"One of the things I've been telling people is, it's OK to be disappointed and, at the same time, understand the choice you're making and why," Currin said. "I mean, I don't want to be holed up all day; no one does. But I also don't want to catch it and I don't want to infect other people. So what can I still do?"

That question is key, Currin said, because as a psychologist, he's frustrated by messaging that only tells people what not to do.

"What we know with behavior changes is, if we tell people what they can't do, but we're not providing alternatives, they don't know what to do," he explained. "We do this with the therapists I'm training right now. If you have a client and you say, 'Don't do this,' but don't give them the thing to do instead, they're still going to do the thing they don't want to do because they don't have a replacement.

"So, it's important to let people know, here are things you can do."

Stay connected

Currin said he's been trying to have as much virtual face-to-face interaction as possible.

Maintain person-to-person contact using different technologies like FaceTime, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

"What's been taken away from me is my person-to-person contact, but what I can do is still maintain my person-to-person contact using different technologies like FaceTime, Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom," he said. "I actually had a wine night with a lot of my friends. We all Zoomed in, everybody showed their wine and we just chatted and drank, and then it doesn't feel so isolating."

Maintain a consistent schedule

One of the best ways to combat a feeling of depression, Currin said, it to stick to your normal schedule.

"Don't sleep in super late – for me, I woke up at 7 a.m. this morning, because that's when I've always woken up," he said. "I took my shower; I got dressed. If you sleep in gym shorts and a T-shirt, don't wear gym shorts and a T-shirt all day long. Put something else on, and it's like a signal to your mind, 'I'm up for today.'"

Also, make exercise a priority, Currin suggested. If you don't have a usual home workout, many gyms and exercise programs are posting workouts online that you can try for free.

Find some alone time

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes being isolated can feel crowded – especially when multiple members of a family are stuck in the same place together for an extended period of time. For that, Currin suggests finding a way to get away, even for just a little while.

"You can get in your car and drive around and then go back home and park," he said. "A lot people just like to drive – get in your car drive, drive around for 20-30 minutes, listen to the radio and go back home. It's important to find different ways to still do things."

If you need to stay in the house, at least find a separate space there. And, perhaps most importantly, tell your family you need time alone.

"This is where open communication comes into play," Currin said. "This applies to parents, children and even people in relationships who both work. They spend a lot of their time apart, and now everyone is physically in that household together, so I think a lot of it is open communication about what people need.

"If your normal schedule is that, from this time to this time, you're at school, work or whatever, you need to have your place during that time to be separated. You might not be doing school and work stuff; maybe you're watching a TV show or you're on your phone. But if you can still maintain some sense of normalcy with what you're doing in this unknown, abnormal time, it does feel better."

Maintain perspective

While striving for normalcy, Currin said it's important to recognize that what we're going through right now is anything but normal.

"It's OK to struggle," he said. "I think a lot of times the expectation is, you have to be perfect: 'You've got to nail this.' But it's OK not to like it. It's OK to be upset and frustrated by it. If you can talk through that, you feel heard, then you feel understood.

"It's not that easy to suddenly work from home when you've gone in everyday to do your job, and now you have to do it in a different environment. There are days when you're going to do really great and be really productive in whatever you're doing, whether that's schoolwork or a project or something like that, and then you're going to have days where you can't focus. And it's OK."

And no matter what, Currin said, remember: Even in isolation, you're not alone.

"Allow yourself to say, 'This is not normal – this isn't how it's supposed to be,'" he said. "We all know it. We all are going through it. Sometimes people think, 'I'm the only one struggling with this,' and no, not at all. We all are."