Maintaining a Sense of Social Connection in a Time of Social Distancing

Illustration of a blue box with a human profile head on it with multicolored blue wave going over top

Illustration by Alexandra Angelich, University Communications

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By now, the pain of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is likely taking a toll on people’s emotional and physical health. And it really is pain.

Human beings aren’t wired for social isolation or the perception of it (what we call loneliness). When people experience chronic social disconnection, they are subject to psychological distress, physical discomfort, and an increased risk of illness and death tantamount to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Conversely, making positive in-person social connections literally generates warm feelings and a physiological stress-buffering response that boosts health, resilience and well-being.

In fact, research confirms that humans are biologically primed to seek social connection and avoid loneliness in much the same way as they are motivated to quench and avoid thirst. Studies show that meeting this need requires not only having strong, mutually supportive relationships with a few intimate others, but also engaging in casual, frequent, face-to-face social interactions during daily life with classmates, co-workers, neighbors and other acquaintances. It also requires feeling socially integrated through a collective purpose, such as being part of a team, club, church or volunteer group.

With state and local governments in the United States advising months of social distancing and self-quarantining, these much-needed forms of regular social engagement are highly constrained. What can be done to counteract the associated side effects?

The team at the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center has some suggestions.

Recognize the Importance of Social Connection to Human Flourishing

“When going about daily life and pursuing individual goals, it’s easy to diminish the importance of relationships, social connection and compassion to our own and others well-being,” said Leslie Hubbard, the center’s director of student engagement and contemplative instruction.

“Many of us are struggling to keep up with our academic studies and professional work, but even during this period of physical distancing, we can and should make our personal relationships and maintaining a sense of connection to others a priority.”

Connection to others is a key component of the model of human flourishing explored by first-year undergraduates in the Contemplative Sciences Center’s fall semester course, “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing,” and the current course, “Personal Adjustment: The Science of Happiness.”

The courses are designed for students to develop knowledge and skills to thrive, flourish and live a life of deep fulfillment and meaning at UVA and beyond. A key aspect is examining how individual well-being is interdependent with the well-being of others, and how cultivating personal relationships and compassion for others is vital to the flourishing of oneself and the wider world.

For example, students learn about research on social baseline theory conducted by UVA psychology professor Jim Coan, who directs the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. According to this theory, the human brain implicitly expects the proximity of others who will help lower the risk and effort of meeting goals by virtue of expanding one’s own capacities. This idea is based on evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging studies showing that the brain encodes the presence and support of others literally as self.

Therefore, when social support and relationships are perceived as lacking, the brain becomes cognitively and physiologically more stressed in the face of challenges, assessing the self to be without expected resources. An example of this effect comes from studies showing that people actually perceive a hill to be less steep when they’re standing next to a friend than when they’re standing alone.

Practice Contemplation

Throughout its programming, the center promotes contemplative practices as a primary pathway toward greater well-being and flourishing. Contemplation is generally associated with mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga, but the center further defines it as practices that formally mark out time and space for observing one’s mind, body and ways of being to develop such capabilities as greater self-awareness and focused attention for better learning, increased resilience and compassion for self and others.

Among the variety of contemplative practices students in “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing” learn about is mindfulness meditation. This practice involves paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment by focusing on the breath, for example. Doing so is associated with a number of health and wellness benefits, including decreased stress and an increased sense of social connection.

Another contemplative practice covered in the course is kindness and compassion meditation. This practice generally involves intentionally shifting one’s focus toward others by wishing them kindness, wellness or a decrease in suffering. Studies have shown that loving-kindness and compassion-based meditations are associated with a boost in feelings of social connection and neural and physiological responses associated with a calm and positive state.

Here is a guided practice of kindness and care from the Contemplative Sciences Center.

Stay Fully Present During Virtual Engagements

Like many throughout the University, members of the Contemplative Sciences Center are working hard to continue instruction and services via alternate means during the COVID-19 shutdown. The center is offering many of its free drop-in classes on mindfulness meditation and other mind-body practices remotely. These online contemplative classes have been a particularly welcomed source of continuity and connection for students and others in the UVA community.

Jerome Romualdez, a third-year student and member of the UVA men’s tennis team, was a frequent attendee of the center’s drop-in mindfulness meditation classes at Clemons Library earlier this semester. He said that maintaining this practice at home has been especially helpful at this time.

“Mindfulness and meditation in general has helped me stay grounded and calmed my mind,” he said. “It’s actually pleasant to be able to recognize the value of being fully present to the things you do need to attend to, like online classes and taking care of yourself.”

Romualdez said the online format has worked well. “It allows time for discussion with other students who join in, and it gives me time to get space and clarity in my mind. I think that it’s so important for UVA students right now to have a tool like mindfulness to really take care of ourselves and be OK with ‘doing nothing,’ which gives us space to reflect on what is really important in our lives.”

From what is now understood about the importance of in-person social interactions to health and well-being, virtual classes and meetings can’t completely fill the void created by social distancing. To get the most out of them, the center’s instructors advocate for fully participating in these virtual interactions rather than, say, multitasking. Really listening to other human voices and being present, focused and engaged with those on the screen leverages the potential for true connection. While studies haven’t confirmed that eye contact via virtual means provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as doing so in-person, it can’t hurt.

During a live online class on yoga for stress relief delivered last week, instructor Robin Lilly made a plea for participants to turn on their videos so she herself could see and respond to actual humans rather than stare into a black abyss. Understanding the importance of making others feel connected may provide just enough extra motivation to stay fully tuned in during all those Zoom sessions.  

“I definitely enjoy the live smaller class sections better than the lectures that are recorded because it allows me to be fully engaged with the instructor and other students,” Romualdez said.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

According to Hubbard, cultivating gratitude is another form of contemplation that can support well-being and increase a sense of connection to others. In this case, the practice is taking time and space to reflect on and be thankful for the positive relationships and social support in one’s life, or even the acts of kindness one witnesses of others.

Kaitlyn Cheng, a first-year undergraduate in the course, “Personal Adjustment: The Science of Happiness,” and an advisee of Hubbard’s, was inspired by the current crisis to keep a 28-day gratitude journal for her final class project.

“I made a list of people who made an impact on me, and I think about the first word I think of when I think of them,” Cheng said. “Then, I draw out the word and write a little blurb expressing my appreciation for them. I plan to mail their little notes to them.”

Creating the journal is helping her to stay positive during this stressful time, Cheng said, and she hopes receiving these notes can brighten her friends’ days as well.

Despite the hardships and suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are plenty of things to reflect on being thankful for, Hubbard said.

“Many students, faculty and staff who’ve had to leave Grounds are getting the rare opportunity of sheltering at home with family or friends,” she said. “Of course, this unexpected sharing of quarters may also be chaotic and even tense at times, but making a point of reflecting on and sharing our gratitude for this unique time together can help sustain us through these difficult circumstances.”

Be Mindful of Social Media Use

Online social media offers a lifeline for staying in contact with physically out-of-touch family and friends. As students in the “Human Flourishing” course learned this fall, however, social media is a double-edged sword that has been shown to fuel depression, anxiety and feelings of exclusion, particularly among teens and young adults.

During an experiment in which they gave up their devices for 24 hours, students in the class were forced to examine the role of social media in their lives and how the constant buzz of notifications from their smartphones increased their stress levels.

“What students explored through the experiment was how much personal technology was hijacking time and space for quiet reflection and observation,” Hubbard said. “Without such opportunities, we miss gaining a deeper level of insight into our behavior, habits and everyday lives, including just how deeply interconnected we are as a human species.”

Hubbard suggested that if used with appropriate intention and reflection, social media can help UVA community members and others maintain a strong sense of social connection during this uncomfortable period of physical distancing. Just as important, it can be a conduit for sharing messages of support and compassion to others who are struggling to flourish during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications