Depression, Social Contact, and COVID-19
With COVID-19 necessitating social isolation to some degree for all of us, most of us with a tendency towards depression need to be extra careful to get enough social contact while still keeping with social distancing guidelines.
There are some true loners out there, of course, and if you’re one of them, this might not be something you need to worry about. For the rest of us, we do need to worry, because in-person contact reduces the risk of depression much more than other types of social contact. This article addresses how “face-to-face” social contact is twice as effective in protecting against depression than things like texting, social media, or phone calls. Video chat is not addressed, but my read is that it’s in-person social contact that matters. Unfortunately, face-to-face social contact is exactly what we need to be avoiding right now.
Why Is Social Contact Important?
I don’t want to write off the fact that social contact can be stressful when you’re already depressed. It can be a real obstacle, and is nothing to sneeze at. It’s still important to have social contact, however – check out this post for some advice on how to make it easier.
I also want to point out that negative social interactions are not protective against depression. This is probably obvious. If you have a toxic relationship in your life, especially with someone very close to you, that’s something to move away from, not towards, if you can.
All that said, social isolation increases your risk of early death, impaired immunity, poor sleep, cognitive decline and impaired executive function, and poor cardiovascular function. Ouch. The effect appears to be even greater if you’re part of a marginalized group.
Types of Social Contact
Physical touch is a particularly powerful kind of social contact (hugs, not punches to the face – punches to the face are a different kind of powerful). Touch causes the release of oxytocin, which reduces stress (including lowering cortisol levels) and increases feelings of security.
With our ability to touch each other hampered right now, it’s even more important to stay in “touch” in other ways.
That said, if you have someone you can hug, do it. If you have a pet, hug that pet.
Social media can be bad for your mental health. It can also be good for your mental health. I’m going to come down on the side of “use social media right now,” as long as you can limit it to positive interactions. It just depends on how you use it.
Limiting social media to positive interactions can be a daunting task, but you can start out by simply hiding posts from people you find stressful, and subscribing to accounts that are all about positive things, like puppies, or kittens, or pretty clouds, or flowers. Whatever does it for you.
Phone Calls, Email, Text, and Video Chat
I’ve lumped all of these types of social contact together because as long as you have a good relationship with the person or persons on the other end, the more contact the better.
Aside from contact with your friends and family, you can also add some social contact to your life through support groups, chatting with someone on sites like 7cups.com, or of course a psychotherapist. Check here for online support groups run by The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and scroll to the end of this post for a list of places that offer telepsychology.
Whatever You Do, Do A Lot of It
With social contact, the more you can get (up to the point where you need some alone time), the better, especially right now. Try to build yourself a social support network comprising friends, family, support groups, and a therapist.