Social distancing threatens social norms and mental health

Going to a baseball game, packing into a concert arena or shaking another person’s hand could become a thing of the past if social distancing becomes a way of life.

The constant reminders that it’s not safe to shake hands or come too close to one another isn’t healthy, and mental health specialists warn that these social cues will linger in our minds after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“It’s hard to go back to more relaxed norms,” said Yulia Chentsova Dutton, a cultural psychologist and a professor at Georgetown University.

Russians developed the cultural habit of changing their clothes immediately after coming home from the outdoors during the civil war and World War II period, and that ritual has been handed down for generations.

“You will probably see something similar happening in the United States,” Ms. Chentsova Dutton said, though she noted that these types of habits develop over time.

It is hard to pin down the amount of time it takes to form new habits.

Americans have been sheltering in their homes for at least two weeks, and President Trump has extended the stay-at-home guidelines to the end of April.

Once the nation gets back to “normal” and businesses reopen, structural changes will appear. Restaurants might have to create more space between tables if that’s what the public demands.

For families and for people constantly on the go, the increased time at home could result in positive changes, allowing them to spend more time together.

“We could be more mindful of how busy do we want our life to get in the future,” said Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland.

Adapting to new social norms will be easier for some people than others, especially those who suffer from anxiety disorders.

Colleen Byrne, director of the psychology clinic at the University of Maryland, said children tend to be more creative and find ways to entertain themselves. Adapting to social distancing may come easier for them.

“If the parents are freaking out, that is not going to help,” she said. “It’s really the adults, I think, [who] have the harder part of creating what the structure is and setting limits.”

Doctors and nurses combating the pandemic on the front lines likely will experience anxiety attacks or lasting effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder, professionals say.

Doctors and nurses are taking to social media to share their feelings.

“People are dying right before me every day and night. I feel kind of helpless sometimes. There are a lot of courageous health care workers bravely caring for the sick,” a doctor in Baltimore posted on Facebook.

A nurse wrote on Facebook: “Mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. I have seen more deaths and cried more tears this past two weeks than I think I ever have.”

The mental health fallout is of particular concern for medical professionals in hard-hit places such as New York City, where makeshift morgues have been set up outside hospitals and doctors and nurses worry about running out of medical supplies such as face masks.

“We have very justifiable concerns right now about the mental health of this population and also right now their approach to bringing in more students who are not finished with their training,” said Ms. Chentsova Dutton, noting that some medical students have been called to help because of the high number of hospitalized patients.


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