What the world needs now: The importance of friendliness during physical distancing
A smile can go a long way, say psychologists
By now, most people are adopting the physical distancing measures that health officials say will keep us safe — but that doesn't mean we should stop being friendly.
"For a lot of people, the world feels very frightening right now. It feels safer to be in a little cocoon," said clinical psychologist Nina Josefowitz. Josefowitz wrote a book on cognitive behavioural therapy and teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.
"[Social isolation] is just incredibly hard and staying friendly is one of the small things we can do, but hugely important."
There is research to suggest that physical isolation affects people's mental health negatively.
"Studies have found things like there's an increase in depression, people have trouble sleeping. There are even some studies which show our immune response goes down," she said.
The little interactions we can still have while maintaining distance in spaces like the grocery store or on a walk matter to our brains, even if we don't think they do.
"There's solid data that if people smile at us, we smile back and they actually measured that our brain chemistry changes and we get little surges of dopamine, which are our feel-good neurotransmitters," she said.
"It doesn't have to be someone you know and love, it can be the person in the grocery store."
'People are also grieving'
Maureen Graham is a retired psychologist in Saskatoon who worked in community mental health for 35 years. Graham lives by City Hospital and noticed that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people on her busy street were avoiding eye contact, passing people with their head down and not waving.
Graham said we can still be friendly — in fact should be — during this time.
"As well as dealing with feeling anxious in a new situation, people are also grieving," Graham said.
"It might be a big thing like the loss of their job but it's also grieving contact with family members. There's lots of feelings attached to that. Some of it is real sadness and depression, some of it is anger."
No established rules
We are all learning to navigate a new reality, and that's one reason people may be retreating into themselves.
"We don't have any social rules established for [this]," Dr. Scott Stuart said. "As a result of that, I think people have difficulty communicating well."
Stuart works with the Interpersonal Psychotherapy Institute (IPT) and is a professor emeritus at the University of Iowa.
He said because we're wired in every way possible to be in relationships with people, this time is especially difficult — but he echoed the call for friendliness.
"There are some basic communication kinds of things that kind of grease the wheels of social interaction," he said.
"One of the terms I frequently use in teaching and also when I work with patients is just being gracious about things. Saying please and thank you. Acknowledging other people."
Another thing Stuart mentioned is the need for leadership — be it politicians or health officials — to model these behaviours and give clear communications.
Meanwhile, Graham has a new great-granddaughter who she was only able to see and hold a few times before the pandemic began. She said no one can really know the long term effects this pandemic will have on mental health.
"Sometimes trauma can lead to people recognizing the need for connection, but sometimes it doesn't. So I'm curious as to what is going to happen when this is over," Graham said.