In an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, people all over the world are asked to stay inside and practice the rules of social distancing — which means no more post-work happy hours, weekend birthday celebrations, dinner plans with a group, or seeing your friends who are not quarantining with you.
Humans are inherently social creatures, so this change has thrown off more than a few of us — myself included. As someone who enjoys heading to bars, going out to eat, and just hanging out with a group of friends, I feel more alone and disconnected from the world than ever.
"The human condition is to find belonging and connection," says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, licensed marriage and family therapist and co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY. What shelter in place and social distancing measures have forced us to do is re-navigate the ways in which we feel close to and cared by the people in our lives.
When we're not able to default to our normal modes of connecting ("Let's grab a drink!"), we notice the lack. As a result, we may wind up reaching out to friends and family a bit more than we usually would. Having to put in extra work to bond isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Believe it or not, now there are opportunities to have much more intimate connections, because you're being more intentional," notes DeGeare. "I find that a lot of people are having much more intense friendships, or are reconnecting with people."
The collective stress we're experiencing as a result of COVID-19 may also encourage a certain camaraderie. "Everyone's very much in this together," DeGeare says. "There's that community feeling, so it's less weird right now for people to be reaching out."
Take, for example, my mom. She's still close with her group of childhood friends from Staten Island, where she grew up. Prior to the pandemic, her group would get together once or twice a year for a long weekend away. But since the outbreaks reached the U.S., they've been having happy hours on Zoom every weekend — loud ones, I might add — which has allowed them to have way more (virtual) face time than they'd been banking before.
"We've never talked this much before," my mom told me. "We have a group text where we would chat every once in a while, but nothing like this. It's just nice seeing their faces. It makes us all feel less alone."
Some friend groups are using technology to replicate events they planned to enjoy together IRL. Garrett, 21, is a senior at Penn State University who had to head home for his final semester due to COVID-19. "The Blue-White Game was supposed to be last weekend," Garrett explained, referring to an organized football scrimmage that occurs every spring before the regular season officially starts. The game may not be as intense as a regular season game, but the tailgating is. It's a huge social event; one of the biggest before school lets out for the summer.
The game, of course, was cancelled. But instead of wallowing, Garrett and his friends decided to dress in their game-day best and hop on Zoom to have an online tailgate. "It definitely wasn't the same as being in the field with cars everywhere, but it felt better that we were all together," he said.
Zoom isn't all happy hours and tailgates, though. After Rachel, 24, realized that she and her friends were all taking the time at home to read more often, they kicked off a virtual book club.
"We decided to start reading The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides and are agreeing on a certain amount of the book to read each week," she says. "Then we all meet on Zoom on Thursday nights and discuss what we've read so far in the book."
Technology can take us pretty far, but some people are finding that nothing really replaces face-to-face time. "I'm still struggling a bit in getting used to the lack of physical contact, though I'm grateful for social media and FaceTime," says Emily, 20. She says that human contact has always been a way to help her overcome her anxiety, and the screen substitutes aren't quite cutting it. So even during this pandemic, she's been relying on loopholes to stay connected. When she starts to feel too isolated, she sees friends — while trying to maintain the recommended distance. "We grab some ice cream, and sit in a parking lot at the beach six feet apart, and just talk," she says. (The CDC recommendation is still to stay at home as much as possible, and if you must leave your house, to stay at least six feet apart from others.)
Others are finding new pleasure in old-fashioned methods of communication, including snail mail.
Tyler, 28, had a friend who turned a childhood photo — a shared inside joke — into a magnet, then mailed it to 10 friends. "All of our friends would send a picture of the envelope from the mail when it came to them, but wouldn't show what the magnet looked like. We wanted it to be a surprise for everyone," Tyler said. "It definitely lifted our spirits when we opened it."
Each person I spoke to shared a common sentiment: We're all still trying to figure it out. We want to feel close to our friends and family while staying as safe as possible. But what helps one person feel connected may not work for another.
That's why it's such a good time to experiment. Even if you weren't someone who enjoyed tailgating or book clubs in real life, the virtual version might be the perfect thing for banishing your coronavirus loneliness. And if not, you can always just hang up.