UW News

March 12, 2020

Staying connected — at a distance

UW News


Social distancing, seemingly the new way of life under coronavirus, has obvious protective measures for health.

But it’s also important to maintain human connection, University of Washington psychology researchers say, even when circumstances have changed. Isolation can affect immune functioning and increase feelings of threat and anxiety, so striking a balance helps all aspects of health.

“Any connection is better than no connection,” said Jonathan Kanter, UW research associate professor of psychology. “Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them however you can. It may sound dramatic, but it really helps. Let people know how much you care about them, you’ll feel better for doing so.”

Kanter, who runs the Center for the Science of Social Connection, and Nicole McNichols, a lecturer in the UW Department of Psychology, have a few tips for staying connected — at a distance:

  • Stay active, or just get out in nature
  • Help someone else — in ways big and small, inside your community and out
  • Call or FaceTime friends and family — don’t just text or post on social media
  • Stick to routines you enjoy — they make the world feel more predictable
  • Avoid looking at the news all day – read a book or watch a show just for fun
  • Keep a journal
  • Exercise self-compassion – treat yourself like you would a friend

“Keep things in perspective and try to stay positive,” McNichols said. “Challenges in life ultimately lead to personal growth. We WILL come out of this and we may even gain something from the experience, even if that ‘thing’ is just extreme gratitude for our ‘normal’ way of life. ”

More information about the new COVID-19 Response Study is available here.

Social distancing practices, both informal and now official, during the COVID-19 outbreak have prompted Kanter and graduate student Adam Kuczynski to launch a study, for which they’re looking for King County adults to share their experiences. Participants will take a brief survey on their smartphone every evening for 2 ½ months. People will be asked about their emotional responses — such as feelings of loneliness or depression — and behavioral responses — such as how much time they spend interacting with others, or even how much time they spend thinking about coronavirus news.

“We know from previous research, and of course intuitively, that social isolation can negatively impact our physical and mental health, and also that people differ in their preference for solitude and the degree to which it affects them,” Kuczynski said. “We hope that participation in this study will inform public health intervention for the current pandemic right here in King County, but also in any future situations similar to this.”

“This crisis we are experiencing may not end soon,” Kanter added. “Building a foundation of healthy coping, doing everything we can to stay connected to each other, to reach out and care for each other, is imperative.”