The Pitt Prescription | How to practice healthy social distancing

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

It’s been about a week since I’ve seen any loved ones in person, and I miss hanging out with them immensely. The days don’t feel the same without seeing my lovely pharmacy phamily or my friends from undergrad, and spending time alone can be stressful and downright boring. However, like many others I am trying to be a responsible citizen by practicing social distancing, one of the key efforts the CDC and other health organizations recommend during this COVID-19 pandemic.

What is social distancing and why is it important?

Social distancing is the practice of isolating yourself from others and it’s often employed by public health officials during pandemics. However, we have not seen a global pandemic of this scale in a very long time, so this is new to everyone. Social distancing has been utilized in many smaller scenarios — like flu outbreaks — but the concept of complete isolation on this level is relatively unheard of.

Social distancing can consist of many different things, but currently we are seeing group sizes being limited — President Donald Trump recommended limiting gatherings to 10 people — as well as the closing of many public buildings, offices and schools that are deemed as “nonessential.” Citizens are asked to stay at least 6 feet away from others at all times to minimize contact, and events like concerts or graduations may be canceled or postponed — like Bigelow Bash, spring commencement and other events have been at Pitt. 

Social distancing measures may seem over the top, but with an infectious disease such as COVID-19, there is no such thing as being too cautious (except for those of you bulk shopping — don’t do that, other people need toilet paper too). When it comes to social distancing, a good rule of thumb is to try and isolate yourself as best as possible because the main goal is to minimize person-to-person contact on a daily basis.

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Social distancing is extremely important in times of pandemics because it can help stop or slow down the spreading of whatever disease is going around. Infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are often very easily spread and can be transmitted via person-to-person contact or contact with something carrying the virus in a certain area (otherwise known as community spread). Simply put, if you are not around other people, there is no possibility of person-to-person infection. Therefore, isolating yourself as much as you can may lead to less transmission of the virus, which is the goal.

How to stay healthy while practicing social distancing

Isolation is oftentimes difficult to deal with, especially for long periods of time. If it weren’t for the fact that I have to continue to work because of my job in health care, I would be bored out of my mind and wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Free time is great, but as with everything, it’s only great in moderation. Having too much free time can actually lead to decreased overall happiness, showing balance is necessary to feel fulfilled.

While physical health is extremely important during the midst of a pandemic, the factor of social distancing plays a major role in mental health. The World Health Organization recently released a guide called “Mental Health and Psychosocial Considerations During COVID-19 Outbreak.” The goal is to promote mental well-being during these trying times and the following are some tips for the general public to practice.

  1. Show empathy to those affected by COVID-19. The virus itself does not discriminate and we should not either. Nobody, regardless of their nationality, should be blamed for catching the virus and we should show support, compassion and kindness to anyone affected. Positivity can help boost mental health during these times.
  2. Reduce the stigma behind the disease and refer to people with it as “people who have COVID-19” or “people who are recovering/being treated for COVID-19.” The name of the disease currently spreading is “coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)” — NOT the “Chinese virus” or anything else. Putting unnecessary or stigmatized labels on this virus will do nothing but cause more societal separation and unrest, especially for those targeted by these false names.
  3. Try to minimize watching the news or checking for updates frequently, especially if it causes you anxiety or distress. Use well-known and trustworthy resources like the CDC or WHO to get the facts regarding this pandemic. Rumors and misinformation lead to panic and fear, which can take a significant toll on one’s mental health. Knowing verified facts can help minimize fear. 
  4. Check in with your loved ones and neighbors on a regular basis and assist them with what you can. Forming bonds and having a good support system creates a sense of solidarity and can unify the community. 
  5. Surround yourself with positivity and things that make you happy. Read stories of those who have made full recoveries or invest in a new hobby. I personally am taking up knitting because it’s a good way to keep your hands and mind busy while making a fun end product. 
  6. Stay connected with loved ones via social networks. Daily phone calls or video chats can be a great way to replace in-person interaction with a virtual substitute. 
  7. Pay attention to what your individual needs may be. Take part in healthy activities like exercising (get fresh air if possible) and keeping a regular sleep routine. Fill your body with healthy food (if you are able to) and try to set a daily schedule so you have a system to follow and are not meaninglessly passing the time.

In general, these tips are to promote healthy mental states in anyone who is practicing social distancing (which should be everyone unless there is a VITAL reason not to). Maintaining a daily routine is a good first step towards better mental health. Preserving normalcy and acting on a schedule where you wake up, get dressed and carry out daily activities can positively affect mental health.

Good mental health then opens the doorway to good physical health, and even though most gyms and exercise facilities are closed, there are many ways to work out at home. Taking walks during non-busy times of day or doing push-ups during commercial breaks on TV are just some of the ways you can stay active while distancing yourself from others. Physical activity can also provide a mental health boost, which is just another reason it is so important.

Social distancing is an important measure and practicing it is necessary during a pandemic. During these times, there are many uncertainties and a lot of pessimism going around. It’s okay and valid to be worried, anxious or scared, but working on maintaining good mental health can keep you in a significantly better overall state while this pandemic is playing out. Make sure to connect with loved ones online and form a good support system to replace in-person contact and to surround yourself with kindness and positivity. This pandemic is going to be difficult, but if we come together as a community (electronically) and follow the advice of public health officials, we will be able to get through it.