The Current

As physical distancing expands amid COVID-19 pandemic, some worry about a social recession

While the word recession is more often associated with economics, neuroscientist James Coan says that a deficit of social connections can be harmful for both mental and physical health.

'We need to think of our social worlds as part of our nutrition,' says neuroscientist

Some experts are warning that physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could result in a so-called social recession. (Shutterstock)
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As people around the world practice physical distancing, some worry that a social recession could be on the horizon.

While the word is more often associated with economics, neuroscientist James Coan says that a deficit of social connections can be harmful for both mental and physical health.

"We need to think of our social worlds as part of our nutrition, or part of our hygiene," the University of Virginia psychology professor told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

With governments asking people to stay inside, and businesses directing employees to work from home, it's easy to feel cooped up and anxious, Coan says.

That's because the human body is designed to respond to major shifts — like a global pandemic that forces sudden changes to one's environment — as a stress response.

"Think of your body as a house," Coan said. "You have to maintain it regularly."

"When we mount a stress response, we divert resources away from those sort of ongoing maintenance projects and apply that energy toward responding to an emergency." 

Though social media and video chatting can be good substitutes for face-to-face interaction, Coan says forming virtual bonds can be tricky because humans didn't evolve to interact with others through a screen.

But that can be overcome by making an effort to be vulnerable with friends and family, even if it feels "ridiculous," he said.  

"I'm talking about being vulnerable with each other in terms of expressing our feelings, creating art, writing poetry, writing songs, singing to each other."

Virtual interactions don't replace touch

Even though they only live a few subway stops apart, Toronto-based journalist Sue Carter has been isolated from her partner for weeks.

"It feels very long distance right now," she said in a phone interview.

While her cat is offering some much needed company, Carter lives alone and has been staying connected with her partner, friends and family through Skype. She has even taken the opportunity to learn tap dance at home.

Still, she says that physical distancing, and the pandemic more broadly, have been difficult for her and she has started limiting what news and information she takes in.

"Any time I'm looking on Twitter and somebody starts talking about the last time they hugged somebody, I just shut that down. I don't like thinking about that."

Virtual interactions don't offer the same connection that things like sharing a meal or chatting with your local coffee shop barista can, she adds.

Sue Carter is a writer and editor for Quill and Quire magazine. (Submitted by Sue Carter)

Coan, who has studied the effect hand holding has on the human body, says it's not surprising that Carter would crave that kind of physical connection.

"Touch is one of the most important things that we get to experience socially. It really matters to our brains that we get touched," he said adding that it can help manage stress.

"Some colleagues of mine and I have found that touch — simple hand-holding — can actually decrease the amount of pain you feel."

Virus could force people to be more open

According to clinical psychologist Ami Rokach, people may be able to further reduce the impact of physical distancing on mental and physical health by reframing negative situations.

"I got, this morning, a sign on my email that said: 'You're not stuck at home, you're safe at home."

The absence of physical intimacy can be positive as it can be a reminder of what's important, according to clinical psychologist Ami Rokach. (Shutterstock)

Rokach told Galloway that he believes this period of physical distancing could have the benefit of forcing people to be more open with others, as Coan suggests, and make interactions more meaningful.

"I think that the virus is really a gift to us in the Western culture," Rokach, who teaches at York University in Toronto, said. 

"People are saying hello to each other.... The sky is blue again. There is no air pollution. You can start to hear the birds."

A lack of physical intimacy can also have benefits, he said. In the same way food can be more enjoyable when hungry, craving a hug can signal to us what's important.

"The most important thing is to see the situation as maybe less convenient than what I want, but, it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to learn something about myself, about other people."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

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