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Social distancing is a time-honored, low-tech tool for slowing the spread of contagious pathogens. But it can also take a toll psychologically. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate these harms, so you can protect yourself and your community from disease while also protecting your mental health.

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Social distancing can be very good —from a public health perspective. It's a time-honored, low-tech tool for slowing the spread of contagious pathogens.

But it can also take a toll psychologically. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate these harms. So you can protect yourself and your community from disease while also protecting your mental health.

Social distancing refers to a variety of measures which actually aim to increase the physical distance between people. In fact, some experts have suggested changing the term to “physical distancing” instead of social distancing. And the logic is simple: we're dealing with an infectious disease that spreads through contact with a sick person or something they've left behind.

So, if everyone limits their contact with people and public places, they can limit the spread of the disease in their community. And that, hopefully, will slow or even stop the outbreak. There are two basic strategies for this.

The first is to keep people who come face-to-face with one another farther apart. This usually means avoiding physical contact, like hugging and shaking hands. And if sneezes and coughs can launch virus particles up to two meters, then it may help to stay at least two meters away from other people when you're in public.

The second is to limit the size of gatherings. This decreases the likelihood that a person who's infected will be there. This might mean closing schools and canceling events, or even shutting down businesses where people tend to gather, like bars and movie theaters.

Or, in the extreme, it may mean following Stay at Home orders, which literally mean staying home as much as you can, save the very occasional trip to the grocery store or if you need to seek medical attention. Social distancing comes in handy when you don't know who in the community might be infected. Like, if people are contagious before they show symptoms, or if people with very mild symptoms can spread an infection. [social distancing] It's distinct from two other measures you've probably been hearing about: quarantine and isolation, though we are using these things all interchangeably a lot right now.

But technically, Quarantine is when you separate people who have been exposed to a contagious pathogen away from people who haven't, and monitor for signs of illness. And isolation is when you separate people who have a contagious disease from people who do not. You may have also heard of cities, counties, or other large areas stopping people from entering or leaving their borders.

This is yet another method people have used to control the spread of infectious disease, called a cordon sanitaire. In all cases, the ultimate goal is to reduce the total number of people infected at any given moment, or quote “flatten the curve” of the epidemic. That helps ensure that healthcare facilities have the bandwidth to give quality care to everyone who needs it.

But, these measures also have very real costs—including psychological ones. There are lots of factors at play, but when it comes to mental health effects, the main culprits are isolation and uncertainty. Now I know we used “isolation” earlier when talking about public health.

But isolation as a public health measure is different than feelings of isolation in psychology. Those are the negative emotions associated with having fewer interactions with other people. We really feel the loss of our social lives because, well, we're a social species.

There's lots of research that suggests people feel happier when they interact with others. And that's because, for hundreds of thousands of years, an individual's survival has depended on the nature of their interactions with other humans. So our brains have evolved to find positive social interactions rewarding on the neuronal level.

Even the everyday interactions we have with strangers contribute a surprising amount to our mental well-being. On top of that, the quickly-changing landscaping of a public health crisis breeds a lot of uncertainty. We have a whole episode on why people tend to have a hard time with uncertainty in general, if you want to learn more.

But the short version: a major theme that underlies many of our greatest worries is fear of the unknown. And outbreaks are kind of unpredictable by nature. Emerging pandemics may create even more uncertainty than other types of dangerous events because they involve multiple types of risk.

On the one hand, your individual risk of personal harm may be low—depending on your exposure, age, and underlying health conditions. But at the same time, the risk to your community or country might be huge—like, the high potential that the disease will overwhelm healthcare systems and cripple economies. It can be hard for the brain to reconcile these seemingly conflicting points of view.

And that contributes to uncertainty. And speaking of uncertainty…. It's also difficult to predict exactly how a pandemic will affect mental health.

Many of the psychological effects of social distancing and other measures are tough to quantify—like the stresses that come with canceled events and lost income. Plus, contributing factors are interrelated, so it's hard to disentangle one part from everything else that's going on. But researchers have gathered a lot of information in recent years—after the SARS, H1N1, and.

Ebola outbreaks, for example. All those studies suggest that public safety measures often lead to increased rates of depression and anxiety in the community. Those increases are even higher for people with high exposure, like healthcare workers.

And people with certain mental health conditions may be more vulnerable. Like, if you already have anxiety, depression, or substance use disorder, then social distancing may make it worse. Or if you have obsessive compulsive disorder, it may be harder to manage amid messages about increased hand washing.

And the emotional costs tend to increase as measures get stricter. Regardless of your specific circumstances, though, there are things that you can do to protect your mental health. All the uncertainty jacks up your stress level—so things that help you relax are great.

Like, if looking at the news makes you feel anxious, maybe spend less time with it, and tune in to just a few reliable sources. Even if what you're reading is accurate, consuming outbreak-related media may decrease your well-being and perhaps even make you feel sick when you aren't. Also, you can try to stay active.

Exercise is great for relieving symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Or, you could consider giving mindfulness practice a try. That's the practice of tuning in to the present moment and accepting your thoughts and feelings without judging them — often with the help of breathing exercises or meditation.

It can calm painful emotions and relieve stress, and it benefits the body and brain in other ways, too. Though, different people can react to it in different ways, so you might want to talk to your doctor first. Above all, try making an effort to reach out.

Even if it feels like it, you're really not alone. We live in a wonderful time when we can use technology, like video calls, to connect. So you can be social with friends and family electronically!

And if you can, go outside. From a safe distance, you can talk to your neighbors and even strangers on the street. You can also reach out to people in need, and have some compassion for people whose jobs take them into crowded places — the healthcare workers, grocery store employees, and airline workers who take care of us every day.

Helping others pays dividends in both directions: the giver and the recipient both feel good. It's part of our biological programming. And all of us should also support the people who get sick and those who lose their wages or jobs because of everything going on.

It's not their fault. This kind of leaning on one another in spite of social distancing may actually make us feel closer and more supported by our friends and loved ones during and after an outbreak. And remember: You have some level of control here.

Your actions, from working from home to washing your hands, do matter. You are protecting people. None of this will completely prevent the pandemic from having an emotional toll; nothing can.

But they might help reduce some of the negative effects of social distancing. We're all in this together. So be kind to one another—and, especially, to yourself.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and to our patrons on Patreon, who make every episode of SciShow possible. You can learn more about this amazing community of science-loving people at And if you're looking for more information about the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we have some episodes on our main channel that you might find helpful—they're linked in the description below. {♫Outro♫}.