The Value of Social Relationships in Times of Pandemic

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Photo credit: Naassom Azevedo

Author: Elijah Nimijean

This blog has been reviewed by Béa Schueller and Claire Gaudreau, edited by Rémi Thériault

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating would be an understatement. Physically, psychologically, economically, and socially, we are all suffering the consequences of mandated isolation. Some of us are stricken with a boredom that even the most interesting show on Netflix cannot address; others find themselves paradoxically fearing yet yearning for the opportunity to step foot outside. Despite the restrictions placed on our daily and professional activities, psychologists have already begun to examine how the pandemic has affected us psychologically, and how future research may have to be conducted — no longer in labs, but online.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face in our new, quarantined existence, is the reality that we simply cannot be around one another. Although many schools and businesses have adjusted to our new reality via remote conferences and class sessions, the simple fact remains that many of us continue to feel listless. Individuals who live by themselves are particularly at risk; there has been no shortage of psychological literature outlining the mental, physiological and physical risks associated with prolonged social isolation. Although some of us may adapt and function normally in spite of the pandemic, many more may find themselves at risk for depression, lower sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline, poorer cardiovascular health, and a worsened immune function, as shown in this systematic review conducted by researchers Louise C. Hawkley and John P. Capitanio (2015).

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Photo credits to Yohann LIBOT

Psychologists have wasted no time regarding how the pandemic has affected our mental well-being. Recently, Dr. Matthew Tull and his team of researchers (2020) conducted a study examining how participants were dealing with the pandemic; measuring variables that include depression, health, anxiety, loneliness, perceived social support, and financial worry. A key component of the study was the inclusion of participants who were ordered to stay home, who constituted the majority of the sample. Tull found that, for these participants, stay at home orders were associated with increased perceptions of risk concerning physical and financial health. Perhaps most importantly, researchers found that stay at home orders were additionally associated with sudden changes in the participants’ social lives: as their contact with others diminished, participants reported greater feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

To speak candidly, dealing with the pandemic has not been particularly difficult for me. Despite my privileged position, this was not due to the reasons many may initially assume. It was not the millions of hours of online entertainment that kept me sane, nor was it the hundreds of books read; rather, it was the time spent with my loved ones, specifically my grandparents. I have always been a large part of their lives, as all of their other grandchildren have already moved away. Every two days, I visit them and play a game of Scrabble, and every time, they remind me how much they appreciate it. We sit around the table, laughing and reminiscing about earlier, safer times. What I don’t believe they know, however, is how much I need them.

This idea — that spending time with others, especially those that are close to us, can promote and protect our psychological well-being — is shared by researchers Lane Beckes and James Coan (2011). They argue that our closeness with others carries with it many benefits, such as reduced anxiety, lower energy consumption, and better emotional regulation; in one cited experiment, Beckes and Coan note that when patients who underwent cataract surgery held the hand of a nurse or volunteer, their anxiety reduced significantly. Beckes and Coan go on to share that our proximity to others can improve how well we function professionally. They cite an experiment conducted by Kraus et al. (2010), which found that high-frequency physical touch amongst professional basketball players was associated with improved late-season performance. This effect was found even when controlling for player status, early-season performance, and player expectations. These findings suggest that, in addition to our physical and psychological health, a lack of proximity to others can impair our professional efficiency.

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United Nations

As the cited literature illustrates, COVID-19 has negatively impacted virtually every aspect of our lives. Some of us are more fortunate than others in how we are dealing with the pandemic; in the context of this paper’s subject, I am lucky that my grandparents only live a short walk away. But even if we find ourselves physically cut off from each other, there is still hope that we can remain connected. A recent meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Meg Morris and his team of researchers (2014) concluded that the implementation of smart technologies and computer-based interventions can act as an effective deterrent against loneliness, and improve social support, self-efficacy and empowerment, especially for the elderly. These findings mirror those of Dr. Tull: that, in response to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, stay at home participants increased social support seeking, and connectedness.

As the pandemic continues to surge in certain countries, I believe that this should be the most important thing to keep in mind. Whether you are a wood-dwelling hermit, or live in the heart of a city, it is important that we all remain social. So call your friends, or play some board games with your family — it might just save your mind.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions about this blog, or about the Canadian Positive Psychology Association’s Student Ambassador Program, feel free to email me at elijah.nimijean@mail.mcgill.ca.

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We are the Student Ambassador Program of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association (CPPA). Find our website here: https://www.cppa.ca/Student-Zone

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