During a press briefing in late March, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would retire the term social distancing, coined in the midst of the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak and now widely used around the world, in favor of a more technically accurate one: physical distancing.
The seemingly innocuous move was spurred by growing backlash from mental health experts who argued the viral verbiage was counterintuitive and possibly even harmful. “We want people to still remain connected,” explained Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for the WHO’s COVID-19 response.
And for good reason.
If we are mindful about their use, our devices can also teach us how to relax and be more present. They can even empower us to unplug from the digital world and reconnect with the one right in front of us.
We are, by nature, social creatures. So it should come as no surprise that sustained periods of isolation can negatively impact our mental well-being. There’s no shortage of empirical and anecdotal evidence to support this. What may surprise you is the degree to which social isolation can affect our physical health, too.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there has been a deluge of exaggerated and misleading claims about ways to “boost” our immunity, from mysterious tonics to colloidal silver. What hasn’t been widely discussed are the ways in which our internal defenses can be weakened in the first place.
One of the most important lessons learned during the SARS epidemic was the psychological impact of so-called social distancing. A 2004 University of Toronto study found that some 30 percent of Canadians quarantined during the outbreaks reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Now you may be asking, What does this have to do with my immune system? Over the last decade or two, our understanding of human physiology has expanded dramatically. One of the prevailing and recurring themes that has emerged is interconnectedness—not just between us, but within us, too.
Study after study have shown that prolonged stress can impair immune function, leaving us more vulnerable to infection and disease. If you’ve ever had a latent illness flare up during a difficult time, you’ve already experienced this firsthand.
Of course, it isn’t just social isolation that’s wreaking havoc on our psyche. Our televisions and news feeds are perfect breeding grounds for stress and anxiety, too. There are more doomsday headlines and worst-case scenarios to consume than ever before, a perpetual panic attack that plays out 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Then there are the very tangible consequences of COVID-19—the medical stories and statistics, the corporate layoffs and furloughs, the personal burdens and struggles. Taken together, it is a proverbial tsunami of negativity. It’s a wonder any of us can get out of bed, let alone eat, work, exercise, and tend to our relationships (often all at once).
The good news is that there are simple and accessible solutions for our collective stress and anxiety. Take the phone in your pocket. The same screens that can fill our minds with worry and fear can also bring us face-to-face with friends and family half a world away, or just down the block.
If we are mindful about their use, our devices can also teach us how to relax and be more present. They can help us think more positively and sleep more soundly. They can even empower us to unplug from the digital world and reconnect with the one right in front of us.
Meditation is often described as a reboot for the mind. Like a powerful computer that has run out of available memory, our brains can easily be overwhelmed by the torrent of thoughts, images, and information that constantly stream in and out. By hitting the reset button, we can start fresh, anytime, anywhere.
Maybe that’s how we should view these chaotic times, too—as a global reset button that forces us to take stock of what’s important and what’s worth protecting. At Calm, we’ve been using the mantra Calm Together as a daily reminder to find peace and a genuine rallying cry to come together, despite our collective isolation.
COVID-19 has a lot to teach us if we’re willing to listen. Short-term pain brings long-term gain. The barriers we allow to separate us are artificial. And the power to build a better world lies within each and every one of us.
For free resources from Calm, including meditations, sleep stories, movement exercises, journals, and music, visit: https://blog.calm.com/take-a-deep-breath