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Safely socializing: Seven ways to connect during the pandemic

By this point, we all know the drill: Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face before you’ve washed your hands.

Stay home as much as possible, and make sure to wear a mask when out and stay 6 feet away from others.

Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, and disinfect high-use surfaces, like door knobs, light switches, phones, computers and toilets, often.

See, you knew all of that already, didn’t you? That second point, stay home as much as possible, is especially important though, as the CDC believes coronavirus is mainly spread from person to person – and sometimes by people who aren’t showing symptoms.

But staying home this much, not seeing our co-workers, our friends or members of our family, save for those we live with, is new for a lot of people. Even introverts can be social butterflies every once in a while.

There is a difference between isolation and loneliness, said Dr. Deb Wiser, chief clinical officer at CHAS Health. Isolation is something we’re doing as part of the coronavirus pandemic, while loneliness is someone’s perception of isolation and the quality of their social interactions.

“What we know is the loneliness piece, that sense of being socially isolated, has a pretty significant effect on mood, especially depression and anxiety and sleep, and if it’s more long-term and chronic, with thinking and concentrating and problems with cardiovascular function as well as risk for heart attack, that sort of thing,” she said.

But, Wiser said, there are proactive ways to combat that feeling of loneliness, including reaching out to friends and loved ones.

Wiser said research has shown that those who have social connections live longer and healthier lives, likely due to making better health choices and having better eating and sleeping habits.

People can still get those benefits by socializing digitally via Skype, FaceTime and Zoom.

“The social media part is helpful because, again, it’s really about your sense of loneliness,” Wiser said. “It’s not about necessarily being physically separated as much as finding those social connections and those things that give you joy.”

Wiser thinks it’s important we make those connections, whether a virtual coffee date with friends or family or calling a friend while on a walk, a normal part of our lives, even after the pandemic-induced isolation, as not everyone lives in the same city as their loved ones and friends.

“You could also make it more fun,” Wiser said. “You could cook together, play games together, you could watch a silly TV show together, online book club. There’s a lot of ways to make it more fun than just feeling like you’re obligated to do direct conversations.”

Along with socializing, Wiser said it also is important to develop healthy patterns when you no longer follow your regular schedule, including exchanging stress eating for purposeful eating away from screens and learning how to cook healthier food.

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and exercising also are important, as they help your sense of well-being.

Wiser said being alone also can lead to negative thought loops, which can make people feel even lonelier. She recommended calming, purposeful activities like getting outside and meditating. Popular meditation apps include Headspace, Calm and Simple Habits.

Most importantly, Wiser wants people to know isolation isn’t going to last forever and help is available.

“If people are struggling with some of the sense of loneliness and depression as related to COVID, reach out to their providers for help with counseling and making sure that they are getting the resources they need to help them feel better,” she said.

Many people are already following Wiser’s advice and using technology to stay connected. While it’s not yet safe to return to the way our lives were pre-pandemic, there are ways to safely socialize if you’re tired of interacting with a screen.

Here are a few ways to make quarantine a little more comforting.

Be a good neighbor

While joining your neighbor for a cup of coffee (at home or from a local shop) isn’t currently an option, that doesn’t mean you can’t still check in on those close to you. Consider swapping home-cooked meals by leaving them on each others’ porches or at the end of the driveway. You also can swap books or movies this way. If someone you know is celebrating, be it a birthday, graduation or anniversary, organize a parade of well-wishers to drive by their home and cheer from the safety of their vehicles.

Put pen to paper

Sure, texting and emailing are convenient and efficient means of communicating, but with more time on our hands, why not write a letter to a friend or loved one? It doesn’t have to be lengthy, perhaps a note to say you’re thinking of them or an update on how you and your family are doing. You can mail them through the post office or drop them directly in the recipient’s mailbox during a walk.

Head for the hills

Quarantine doesn’t mean you’re confined to your home; you can still enjoy all the natural beauty the Inland Northwest has to offer as long as you practice social distancing while walking, running, biking or hiking. A stroll around the neighborhood is a quick and easy way to get a little sunshine and exercise, and you can always plan a route that takes you past the houses of friends and family members. Or meet a friend on a favorite trail for a socially distant adventure. Also, make sure the place you’re going is still open to the public.

Pick up the phone

A phone call might not be the same as face-to-face socializing, but it’s almost the next best thing, especially when you don’t live within walking or driving distance of the person you’re talking to and are looking to give your eyes a break from screens. Call a friend, family member, a neighbor or someone you’ve not talked to in ages and catch up – share stay-home tips, favorite recipes, book or movie suggestions, or make plans for a meetup once social distancing measures are no longer needed.

Break out the board games

All credit for this idea goes to the two men I saw in a video playing Battleship together by yelling back and forth across a courtyard from their respective apartments. Grab a headset and chat with a friend while playing video games or, again, to give your eyes a break from screens, play a board game with a neighbor or friend, with one of you controlling the pieces on the board. You could even call a friend and have them set up the same game. Tell each other what number you roll or what card you draw (using the honor system) and adjust your board as needed so you can keep up with the action.

Movie night on the lawn

With a sheet (or the side of your house) and a projector, you can turn your yard into the ultimate drive-in theater. Invite friends and family over, and encourage them to bring their own snacks. Make sure there is enough space in your yard for everyone to sit 6 feet apart, then hit play for a simple distraction.

Story time in the sun

Similarly, you can round up your children’s friends and host story time on your lawn. Again, make sure there’s enough space for everyone to be safely separated, and choose a variety of books that young readers would like to hear. Children are likely still at least a little confused about what’s going on, and the chance to see their friends via an outdoor story time might bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives.