Quarantine, social distancing, and friendships with Lydia Denworth

It’s been a few days since we stepped out, a few weeks since we’ve had proper face-to-face interaction with fellow neighbours, colleagues, and friends. In the current outbreak times, people around reflect on a lot of things—from opinions and decisions to as simple as what to eat for the next meal. And, there are some of them, wanting to have peer network and connectivity. Where are we headed towards?


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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations with Aishwarya. We hope you’re all safe and healthy. Let me introduce the guest for today’s episode—Lydia Denworth.

Lydia is a science journalist and a contributing editor at Scientific American. She’s also authored a book titled “Friendship.”  She’s here to point out the effectiveness of empathy, friendships, and mindfulness in the quarantine times.

Lydia: Hi! It’s great to be here. 

Aishwarya: Okay, so, let’s state the obvious.

People are locked down, they are perturbed and they are still figuring out how to stay safe and make sense of the quarantine mayhem. How are things changing around, and how do you deal with this new anxiety?

Lydia: It really is an unprecedented time but people have gotten through incredible hardships in the past and so, I am looking to the science of resilience and what it can tell us. The uncertainty in all of this is the hardest part. But, I think if we focus on the short term and what we can do each day instead of fixating on how long this is going to go on and what’s gonna happen because of it, we can keep ourselves calmer. In resilience science, what they talk about is trying to keep an optimistic point of view and to do some cognitive retraining. When you start to have to recognize your catastrophic thoughts or anxiety, challenge it and think of some positives, things like that.

Aishwarya: That’s nice. I like this concept of resilience science, and as you said, taking one day at a time one of the activities for each day and negating those anxiety thoughts with positive thoughts is really gonna help. So, thanks for sharing that Lydia.

Social distancing, this is a catch phrase of late. Now, does social distancing alienate your friendships?

L: No! It does not have to be at all. In fact, this is a critical time for friendship. Because what friendship is really about is being there for each other in times of crisis. That is one of the fundamental traits of friendship. It is about helping us weather the stresses of day to day life and this is nothing if not stressful. So, I think it is important to think of this as physical distancing and not social distancing because it is entirely possible to be social from a distance. And, to check in on your friends, think of your friends. In fact, if anything, what’s striking is, how much this time is reinforcing the importance, or making us recognize just how critical social bonds are for our day to day life. We take them for granted most of the time and now that we can’t, is what you will miss most.

Aishwarya: Certainly that is very true, because social bonds were there and it was considered a part of our everyday activity. As you said, we really did not understand the importance of a bond or a relationship or rather just having a casual chat with our friends. But now most of us are wanting a peer to peer interaction, wanting to meet people. It is nice to see that all of us are taking that extra step and finding different ways through which we can stay connected at times like this. 

Lydia: That’s right! I am loving the creativity that people are bringing to this. We are really embracing digital technology. It has good sides and bad sides. We would really be happy to see each other in person when that is possible again but the fact we have so many ways to connect through technology from a distance is really getting people through this. I mean, I am having Zoom video conferencing, Zoom meetings with my friends in a way that I only ever did for work before and I know I am far from the only person that’s true for.

Aishwarya: Yeah, totally! And people are exploring a lot of methods; and talking about that,

Would you like to state some more about the creative methods that people undertook for connecting with each other? Something that you say and you were like “Wow, that’s really good. I would love to share that with others.”

 

Lydia: I just mentioned video conferencing. That’s the obvious. Because then you can at least see faces and you can have a little more of a natural conversation. In fact, some of my friends who live further away and who I only ever see sporadically, we’re finding that now we say “Why didn’t we do this before?” 

But also, people are also taking a walk on FaceTime together and talking about it on their phone or having a regular check in on a WhatsApp thread. Those things are much more active than before, and I don’t think they have to have long conversations. Just check in regularly—it is an opportunity to call a friend who you haven’t talked to in a long time, and say, “In this time I am thinking about the people who matter to me.” Just to use good old fashioned telephones… or even write a letter—old-school. *Laughs* Nowadays, that feels creative right? That feels a little bit unusual. 

Aishwarya: For sure! 

Lydia: And I love the more talented among us are putting online concerts with everybody, all the instruments and singers performing separately at their homes and then the whole thing being put together online. Those kinds of things have made me very happy when I come across those.

Aishwarya: Interesting! FaceTime and concerts taking place online, tapping on video calls, audio calls and what not…

I think all of these are reinforcing the fact of being there for each other. And as you rightly said, showing the care to the ones that we really care about and letting them know that you are not alone in this journey and we are all here together and will face this together

Lydia: Yes Indeed!

Aishwarya:

So, you say friendships are important for one’s immune system. I was a little intrigued by that fact. How are these two related?

Lydia: Yes, this is so interesting. One of the major stories that I tell in my book is how scientists have come to understand the importance of friendship on the one hand and social isolation and loneliness on the other on our health. So, friendship is as important as diet and exercise for health and there is a long list of things that social connection affects. The immune system is one but there is also the cardiovascular system, your cognitive health, your mental health, your stress responses. Even the rate at which your cells age is affected by how socially connected you are. 

But, Importantly, let’s talk about the immune system specifically since that is your question and that is so relevant to what’s going on today. When we are under stress Cortisol is released in our bodies, We think of it as a stress response hormone. Those rates increase, Increases in Cortisol can inhibit the immune response in your body and what they have found is that with friendship on the one hand or loneliness on the other is that the loneliest people are more susceptible to inflammation and they are more susceptible to viruses. And people who are more socially connected are more resilient. It has to do with the way your genes are expressed in your immune system. I wont get into the nitty-gritty of it but it is a clear response that we have, so that your immune system is strengthened by having a lot of friendships and social connections in your life.

Aishwarya: That’s so nice to know. The whole concept of how your hormonal changes are associated with digestion or with the friendships that you have. So far we know that when we are mentally affected, it’s going to take a toll on your health. So, with regard to friendship I guess it’s a new theory and nice to know that it has a genetic impact.

Lydia: Right! What I think is so important about this is that it is not so hard to understand that the food you eat has an effect on your body because you put it in your body, or when you go for a run, your heart gets going from the exercise. So, you can see the connection to your health. But for friendships and relationships that exist entirely outside the body, it was more of a leap to understand that that actually does get under your skin and into your cells and changes the way your body responds to experiences, but it does. And so this is a really critical thing and it is a piece of why even if you have to socially distance you still have to connect. It’s going to help you get through this not just psychologically but physiologically. You would be healthier at the end of this experience because of it.

Aishwarya: Makes sense! And all of these are coming together rightly at this point in time—when we definitely need to reach out to people to show care to them or accept love and more kindness from them. So, it’s come together in the best time possible, and I’m sure listeners today would have learned the importance and can map their thoughts around this. 

Lydia: Right.

A: Moving on to the most simplest question yet very complex.

How do we stay healthy both mentally and physically now that you’ve spoken about how mental and physical health together play an important role at a time like this.

Lydia: At a time like this, I said at the beginning that uncertainty is the hardest part and we have to take it day by day. What I think is really important and the experts I have been speaking to, I have been interviewing a lot of mental health practitioners right now about this moment in time and they are saying that it is critical that you establish a routine and take care of yourself. You really focus on maintaining your sleep, getting your exercise and eating well and things like that. Beyond that, we talked about resilience and trying to train your brain. You can use mindfulness and things like that to help you. You can do it in a formal way where you have seated positions and actively engage in mindfulness meditation or you can do it in a simpler more informal way, even when you are washing the dishes or brushing your teeth or taking a minute to focus exactly on what you are doing. It helps people to sort of stop and breathe and put the stresses of what’s going on in the world outside of their mind. 

The other thing I think is really important is what my family and the people I am isolated with during this time, what we are doing is, we are declaring a little piece of each day COVID-19 free, whether that is three hours, one hour or five hours or whatever you can do. But it means that you talk about it, you don’t read the news, you focus on something else. Finally, there are a few positive psychology tips you can use to stay sane and healthy. They are things like finding three good things in the world. Some of the friends in my WhatsApp thread that I am in, they are doing things like, somebody declares today, “Take a picture of Spring where you are” or next day “Take a picture of your pet” or you are looking for good things to share like those concerts we were talking about where people are performing and then share it with your friends or with the world and say, “Here’s one good thing that I found today that made me think about something other than Coronavirus.”

Aishwarya: Yeah! Fair enough. It takes me back to the initial point that we discussed—break your day into multiple parts and have little patterns for yourself, with respect to sleep or exercise or eating. I loved your point on finding three good things in the world; and try to stay away from panic and pandemic news for a while, and need some peaceful time for your family members.

Lydia: I think that is going to be critical and trying to find moments of gratitude, things to be grateful for each day even if they are small things and your good things, and your gratitude moments would be the same or different. Just stopping and breathing and being optimistic. The world has come through massive world wars and pandemics before, never a pandemic like this but what’s interesting here is this is a combination. It doesn’t have any exact examples in history. So, you have to take pieces of what we have used to get through. But, always, always, always, that has been our friends and social networks and that is true now as it ever has been.

Aishwarya: Absolutely! The current time that we are in is a combination of too many attacks and staying sane is definitely going to be a hard task but I am sure with the couple of things that we discussed now, at least it would ease it for people a bit. And I have wondered at the fact that little things like gratitude and showing love and showing kindness and spreading positive vibes take utmost importance right now and these are certain things that we tend to miss out in our day to day lives easily when we were busy with our work, very busy moving around, shuttling around and now, all of these things seem to come into picture very clearly. So, it is wonderful to see how humanity works!

Lydia: That’s very true!

Aishwarya: How do you see the next few weeks panning out? Also, We were talking about the power of social media.

How do we view social media in a way that is very specific to spreading positive vibes and not really worried about the pandemic and the negativity that is being spread about, not reading the rumors and false information?

Lydia: First of all, the big problem is that none of us knows exactly how the next few weeks will pan out and that is part of what is causing our anxiety, is that uncertainty. But, one of the stories that I am reporting at the moment is about how pandemics end and how they pan out. The truth is that they do end. So, we can know that, we just don’t know how long it will take. 

To stay positive and especially through social media, the same things are true that we have been talking about with the way you view social media and the way you read the news. You need to be intentional and deliberate in your approach. You need to bring a critical mind to the things you read. One of the problems with social media these days is that there is fake news there and stuff that is not proven yet. The pace of the news is so fast that I have seen a lot of stories that rocket around the Internet about aspects of the coronavirus that then turn out not to be true. So, people’s response to something upsetting is to be a little skeptical—wait till you see it a few times, don’t freak out right from the start. Right now, the Internet is a source of amazing examples of resilience and the best side of the human spirit. So, look for those. Be intentional about finding the good things and just stopping and appreciating them. I’ve said it a couple of times now—Each day I stop and watch one of the concerts that have been put together—the Stgrano symphony orchestra, and the other one…They did a version of the “Rite of Spring” and it just made me so happy. It’s a minute to stop and without social media I couldn’t find those things. Try to focus on what is good in the same way that we set a routine for yourself in your daily life, maybe you read the news at a certain time of the day and the rest of the day you leave that alone. And use social media just to converse with your friends and look for structure and just don’t scroll through the news feed endlessly and picking up on anything that is making you feel panicky is not going to help.

Aishwarya: Summing up what you discussed, the first step is to condition our thoughts, to decide what is really the need of the hour and what is not required and when you go through social media, apply that pattern, apply that condition and just take in only that information that is relevant for you and leave out the rest. So, don’t fall prey to these cautionary and negative and false information on social media.

Lydia: Let me just add that it’s important to have news sources you trust, and pay attention to the source of the information that you are looking at. Does it come from a newspaper that you know? Is it a reputable publication or not?. And if you can’t find this source, then you can discount it somewhat. If it’s true and important, it will bubble up in bigger ways, in places you trust. That’s another way to limit and be intentional in what you absorb and what you ignore.

Aishwarya: Fair enough! If you’ve been following somebody, I think by now you would know if it’s something that matters to you, if it’s true and if it’s coming from a good source that you can take in. 

Thank you so much, Lydia! At this critical time, I am sure that LonePack Conversations listeners have thoughtful takeaways from you and realizing the power of togetherness and friendship is sure to help all of us stay connected despite the current physical separation. Thank you so much once again for being part of this episode and letting people see a lot of positivity from you

Lydia: Thank you for having me! I’m glad to do it.

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