The importance of staying socially connected in times of crisis

Times of crisis can have an isolating effect. But in the face of a global pandemic, it is more important than ever to stay in touch – with yourself and others.

People are naturally social creatures. It’s science: deep down, wired into the neurons in our brains, we know other people are good for us. Family and friends play a vital role in our lives, offering a shoulder to lean on and a sounding board when we need support.

And healthcare workers know this all too well. Compassion is an integral part of effective patient care; the human touch can demystify a hospital’s clinical environment and help create a sense of trust in an unfamiliar treatment process.

The rapid spread of coronavirus disease has changed that. With country after country establishing and then extending prolonged periods of social lockdown, we are no longer as connected as we’d like to be, or should be.

This global pandemic has caused a worldwide state of nervousness and confusion. If you go into work on the frontline fraught with anxiety, this is a natural human reaction, says Dr Tanya Boshoff, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Potchefstroom.

“In times of crisis, people tend to feel emotionally overwhelmed,” she says. “A person can experience emotional distress and may fight, flee or freeze in the moment. This is normal, and biological – but it can become a negative trap.”

Social connection lowers stress and anxiety levels, explains Dr Boshoff. In times of crisis it is more important than ever to believe in those benefits. “It is important to discuss what you are feeling with your colleagues and family members. By speaking out, you are creating awareness of what you are feeling and allowing others to comfort you.”

The act of reaching out can counter a sense of loneliness, anxiety and resentment. “It is normal to feel, ‘I am the only one feeling like this or going through this’. You may not want to show your emotions or appear vulnerable in front of your colleagues. But by creating an awareness of what you are feeling, you are allowing yourself to be more open to finding ways to deal with it effectively.”

This way you will be able to control your emotions, and not act on them.

Personal protective equipment adds an additional physical barrier to human connection. This is essential for both patients and staff, of course. In this context, body language, tone of voice and genuine interest are crucial in conveying that patients are important. “Take time to ask simple questions about your patients and their lives, not solely to ascertain their condition but to extend some empathy. Making eye contact shows that you care and are willing to listen.”

Connecting is your best defense against stress. “By bottling things up within yourself, you will become more fearful and anxious. As you share your thoughts and feelings, you are breaking the silence within yourself and allowing yourself to be open to change. Your coping strategies will be more effective because you are willing to pinpoint what you are truly feeling and fearing.”