Mental Health & Connectedness
Being social is part of being human. It's innate, it's in our DNA. We wouldn't thrive without other people around us. Since the beginning of mankind, humans have leaned on each other for survival. We look at others for validation, understanding and help. We learn from others, whether that be intellectually or emotionally, we are encouraged by others, we are inspired by others, we are challenged by others. The list of the things we bring to & receive from our relationships and interactions with individuals is long, and removing that from our day-to-day drastically decreases our quality of life.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as an introvert, and that everyone should be, by nature, extroverted. It simply means that we aren't wired to spend long periods of time in complete isolation. We all have our moments of valuing our alone time and our social time, some preferring to spend more time doing one over the other. In our hierarchy of needs, a concept created by psychologist Abraham Maslow, social needs are right above our fundamental needs for survival (safety, food, water, sleep and warmth). According to this theory, we don't necessarily feel any different when these needs are met - but we do become distressed & anxious when they are not. Even a simple "hi" to the cashier at the grocery store or a quick chat with an acquaintance (also known as "weak social ties", in contrast to deep friendships and familial relationships) has been proven to make a world of a difference for our mental health.
Social isolation is a well-known and widely used torture tactic. The United Nations has condemned its use is U.S. prisons in particular, where it is frequently practiced. It makes us feel disconnected from ourselves and from our place in the world. Psychiatric conditions are triggered and/or worsened: as an example, a study done in the aftermath of the 2009 H1n1 pandemic showed that those quarantined had post traumatic stress scores that were four times higher than those who were not quarantined. The psychological repercussions of social isolation are significant, and Dr. Renato Alarcón sums it up perfectly in this quote from an article written for the Psychiatric Times:
(...) loneliness can become a core component (or symptom) of a variety of psychiatric disorders through a subtly or grossly declared clinical evolution: it can nourish despair and discouragement ending up in one of several types of depressive disorders and potentially self-destructive acts; it can aggravate fears and precipitate one or several types of anxiety disorders, including a variety of phobic syndromes; it can exacerbate behavioral styles that end up in conditions such as OCD; and last but not least, it can generate painful memories that, later, can make the experience of social isolation, prelude of a potentially invalidating PTSD.
So, while we can't compare the quarantine to solitary confinement in prison, it's still safe to say that similar psychological ramifications have been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, experienced by a large percentage of the population. We may feel an increase in anxiety and/or depression, our appetite might have changed drastically, we may experience lethargy and we may react to certain things in ways that are unfamiliar to us. Trust me: if you're having emotional reactions that you don't understand & can't explain post lockdown - you're not alone. Connectedness has incredible benefits on our mental and physical health, & taking that away abruptly & for a long period of time - even when it's necessary - will not leave many people unscathed.
The Health Benefits of Connectedness
Social connection has been proven to enhance mood, decrease blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease. It has also been shown to improve the life and health of cancer patients (note: not cure), to prevent either relapsing or developing depression, and to decrease anxiety. Studies have shown that social support is linked to better weight management, which comes as no surprise when you think about programs such as Weight Watchers, which is by far the most successful and longest standing weight loss program in the world, having been founded in 1963 and still going strong. People who are socially connected are more apt to take care of themselves, which is likely due to their heightened self-esteem - another studied benefit of connectedness. As such, alcoholism and chain smoking are less prevalent. Lack of connectedness, particularly within strong relationships, has been proven through a huge study of 309,000 people to increase the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%, a statistic similar to the mortality rate associated with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than that of obesity. This finding goes hand in hand with the results from studies that have shown that acts of caring & kindness release oxytocin, a peptide hormone that has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety - and it's been widely reported that stress destroys our health.
Ways To Increase Connectedness
COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine has put us in completely unchartered territory. As a result, we don't necessarily know how to build or keep connectedness when it's taken away from us. Below are some ideas, both in person (for those who can) and virtually, to stay connected during and after quarantine:
Exercise classes are an incredible way to get your body moving, stay motivated and meet other people. Even if meaningful relationships aren't created there (and who knows, sometimes they are - it's certainly happened to me!), it's still a positive space where small but significant exchanges occur. Whatever your exercise of choice is: yoga, pilates, spin... find a studio near you & sign up for a couple of classes. I LOVE spinning, and every time I go I leave with an uplifted mood & feeling light on my feet just from having interacted with the instructor.
Some places in Paris to check out:
27 rue du Grand Prieuré, 75011
Summit Cycle 24 rue Feydeau, 75002
39 rue du Temple, 75004
Marais Studio: 175 rue du Temple, 75003 Palais Royal Studio: 47 rue de Richelieu, 75001
Beaubourg Studio: 86 rue Quincampoix, 75003 Opéra Studio: 10 rue Volney, 75002
Trocadéro Studio:111 rue de Longchamp, 75016
Canal Saint Martin Studio: 42 rue des Vinaigriers, 75010 Paradis Studio: 4 rue de Paradis, 75010
40 rue de la République, 75011
When I moved back to Paris from Edinburgh, where quarantine was still going strong, I immediately signed up for an in-person volunteering position. I can honestly say that this weekly commitment has been one of the best things I've done, and has nourished my mind and soul in ways I wasn't expecting it to - particularly after months of shelter in place.
While the world has seemingly halted with COVID-19, the needs of the underprivileged have not - in fact, they have amplified. As a result, volunteering positions are needed more than ever, regardless of your geographical location. Check out your local religious institutions (even if you aren't religious, most of them have outreach programs that could use your help!), animal shelters, non-profit organizations... chances are, they'll have a spot open with your name on it.
Serve The City is an excellent website with plenty of volunteering opportunities in Paris for English-speakers, from food distribution to teaching English. They also have a MeetUp group that includes ongoing social events.
Go The Extra Mile
Next time you check out at the grocery store, get coffee, or go to work - take the time to ask whoever the cashier, the barista or your co-worker how they are and really listen to their response. In a post-quarantine world, we are starved for human connection. These brief moments of connection can be extremely nourishing.
The UnLonely Project
The UnLonely Project has created the Stuck At Home Together initiative, a brilliant response to the quarantine. It's a community where you can check in, participate in "creativity challenges", and share your writing with other members. It's a great way to connect with others who might be feeling the same way.
Yoga & Other Exercise Classes In Real Time
COVID-19 has forced many business owners, particularly those who work in fitness, to be creative. Many have launched real-time group classes on Zoom, so that you can participate and see, hear and speak with other members while social distancing. Among the places offering livestreaming group classes are SLT, Studio Three, Barry's Bootcamp, and Lyons Den Power Yoga.
Zoom absolutely blew up at the beginning of quarantine. Happy hour, dates, girls night... you name it, we Zoomed it. As quarantine has come to a halt (hopefully!) in France and in most of Europe, Zoom has died down a bit. For expats in particular, I think that continuing to use it in creative ways can be really useful to feel less isolated & alone: creating a pub quizz with friends and/or family at home, playing a game of pictionary or even cooking virtually together.
Virtual volunteering is a rewarding way to connect while at home. Be My Eyes is a virtual volunteering program where you can lend your "sight" via an app to someone who is blind or with low-vision to help them solve problems or tackle challenges, such as reading instructions or checking an expiry date on a tub of yogurt.