British Columbia·Opinion

Physical distancing is critical during COVID-19. But let's not become socially isolated

I’ve battled depression and know how crippling social isolation can be. That’s why I support the World Health Organization’s switch from "social distancing" to "physical distancing" during this global COVID-19 pandemic, writes Josh Kozelj.

Now more than ever, we need to be socially connected for our mental wellbeing

Josh Kozelj has battled depression and knows how crippling social isolation can be. He supports the World Health Organization’s switch from the term ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ to describe the practice of keeping at least two metres away from other people to help slow the spread of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Josh Kozelj, who lives in Victoria and has been diagnosed with depression. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

My mother always told me that talking is the best natural remedy. I'm an introvert, and have battled depression and social anxiety my entire life. 

I used to hide in my room whenever we had large family gatherings and come up with millions of excuses to not join the party. In my room it was just me and my thoughts. I could be myself without fearing what other people thought of me.

At the local grocery store, whenever someone in line comments on me wearing socks and sandals when it's chilly and pouring rain — basically, I'm too lazy to lace up regular shoes — I'd feel the anxiety rise in my stomach while I fumbled to explain myself.

But now, with schools and restaurants closing, sports arenas shutting their doors, and people staying inside for the foreseeable future, I find myself craving opportunities to get out the door and join a party or make small talk in a supermarket lineup.  

In times of crisis, we need to communicate with those close to us more than ever. Yes, we should be distancing ourselves physically — but not socially. We should still check in with our neighbours, friends and family.

That's why I can't help but cringe whenever I hear the term "social distancing." While it's important for British Columbians and the world to listen to government and health official orders to stay at home during this global COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn't mean we have to stop being social. 

In fact, we shouldn't. I understand how crippling the loneliness is that so many others are now facing for the first time. 

That's why I support the World Health Organization's recent switch in language from "social distancing" to "physical distancing." By using "physical distancing" to describe the practice of keeping at least two metres away from others to slow down the spread of COVID-19, it highlights the importance of staying socially connected. Examples include taking part in the 7 p.m. cheer for health-care workers from your balcony, joining an online fitness class, or simply waving to a person on the street as you get your groceries.

Premier John Horgan acknowledges 'anxiety is high' due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

B.C. Premier John Horgan says it’s going to take ‘extraordinary resilience from British Columbians to get through’ the COVID-19 pandemic. 1:02

This pandemic may be a trying time for you, or it may not. I'm not a doctor, but I know what it's like to sit in a dark room alone believing I'm the only one battling mental health issues.

So, here's what has worked for me.

The first step in overcoming your anxiety and fears, especially during this pandemic, is acknowledging that it's OK to feel stressed. 

Everyone has worries and fears, and it's important to know that it's alright to be anxious with all the uncertainty in the world. We're all in this together. If you're worried about the future and when we'll return to some sense of normalcy, you aren't alone.

(CBC News)

It's also perfectly OK to seek out help. I was terrified of talking to my parents about my problems in fear of disappointing them, so they suggested I see a counsellor. It was the best decision they could have ever made for me.

Obviously, in the current climate, it may not be possible to meet in person for counselling sessions. But I would still recommend talking to someone about your worries, rather than being alone and holding in those thoughts. My mom works in mental health and she still meets with a small team in her office to call or text patients in need. There are also virtual counselling services in B.C.

You can also express your fears on paper. Try breathing exercises, like closing your eyes and trying to inhale through one nostril at a time. Or just call or FaceTime your friends and family.

Although he studies at the University of Victoria, Kozelj is now staying with his family in Coquitlam, B.C., during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Finally, in these times of uncertainty, it's useful to keep a sense of routine and normality in your life.

If you used to meet a friend for coffee in the morning before work, try seeing if that friend is available to chat around the same time. Seeing a familiar face may ease your fears of the unknown and help you regain a schedule to follow.

Personally, I can't wait until this pandemic subsides so I can go to the grocery store and start up conversation with people in line commenting on my socks and sandals. 

Editor's note: While the expression "social distancing" remains relatively common, health authorities in Canada are increasingly using the expression "physical distancing." For consistency and clarity, CBC has also done the same.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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