For several weeks now the world has been facing the covid-19 strain of virus, a new bug that has caused many around the world to become scared of getting sick.  Although the virus is largely like any regular flu bug, because it’s a new strain, governments have been extra vigilent in taking measures to make sure that the majority of people don’t get sick.  One of the measures to tackle this is called ‘social distancing’, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others promoting a 2-metre distancing rule, where you should always keep a distance of about two metres from anyone else.  But could this idea of ‘social distancing’ do more harm than good in the long-term, and why is it leading so many regular people into anti-social behaviour?

Keeping the distance

The idea of keeping a distance from others during times of great sickness, is one that dates back a long way, and for many of us we feel it instinctually, to keep away from people who might be coughing and sneezing all over the place.  To keep away from someone who is obviously ill is one thing, but because the goverments and doctors warn that some can carry the virus and be infectious before showing symptoms, the idea of social distancing was implemented, to make sure that those who are healthy don’t catch the virus from others who may be infectious.  But the rule of keeping apart two metres has gone a bit wrong and has begun to cause a lot of people to fear that everybody out there is sick, when in actual fact very few in the whole population are.

Keeping a ‘safe distance’ from others might be a good idea in the short term, but the way this rule is being implemented and the way that people are enforcing it doesn’t make sense (at least not if you know how viruses actually travel), and is causing a lot of people to act in a very anti social way.

Stay away from me!

I’ve gone out some days of the week to take a walk and go down to my local food shop to buy necessary ingredients (I never engaged in panic buying so don’t have a lot in the house).  Walking to the shops though has become a strange and very sad experience as I see more and more people imposing the 2-metre rule in an overly zealous way.  I understand the idea behind the rule and why people are doing it, but it’s one thing to keep apart from others and a completely different thing to shun someone walking the opposite way on the pavement and rush away from them as if they are a plague carrier.  And yet this is how people I’ve encountered are now treating me and others.

I’ve walked along the same pavements where neighbours and strangers used to greet me with a smile, and I’d smile back, but now those smiles look like scowls and people cross the road whenever I am walking, keen to stay away from me, worried I’ll infect them.  At other times I see people on busier roads with little chance to cross attempt to stop in grassy spaces so I can pass them or in once instance one woman even walked right into a tree (I’m not even sure she saw the tree as she rushed towards it!), just so I’d pass her and she/they wouldn’t have to come anywhere near me.

People who were once friendly treat me like I’m some kind of diseased plague victim that’s going to infect them, and yet, just like the majority out there…I’m not even sick.

Being anti-social

Traditionally we think of anti-social behaviour as being something to do with terrorising people, name-calling, throwing things at others or generally causing a nuisance, trouble and upset to others.  But the actual definition of anti-social behaviour in the UK is acting in a manner where the behaviour of someone is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to someone else who’s not of the same household.  The last two or three weeks have shown just how differently the once calm people of this country (and the greater world) are behaving and how so many are now fitting in and doing what is defined as anti-social behaviour.  They may not be causing harassment to others, but the alarm and distress that people like me feel when walking down the street or attempting to go grocery shopping, is very real and can cause countless new mental health problems.

In the first weeks of this pandemic, when a large proportion of people went panic buying in the shops, there was a sudden surge in this anti-social behaviour.  People were nasty to each other, the once charitable and calm British nation began to argue at checkouts, steal stuff from each other’s trolleys and practiced (very well) the art of being selfish and thinking only of themselves and not others.  Once the panic buying stopped and people began queuing up at supermarkets in an orderly way, and practicing the two metre distancing rule, a new wave of anti-social behaviour began.  The once friendly and kind British nation became suspicious of anyone who came near them, began treating everyone as a plague-carrier and scowled and swore at those who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep enough distance from them (yes I and others in my family have encountered people who have sworn at us for walking down the street because there wasn’t enough space to be two-metres apart or for spending too long at one isle in the supermarket).

How social distancing damages mental health

The two metre rule is one I believe will be in force for some time, even after we are told that we no longer need to keep a distance, unfortunately some people will inevitably do it out of habit, ignorance or their own twisted thinking that everyone is their enemy.  The two metre rule is one I won’t argue against, (although if you study a bit of pathologyand human immunology then you’ll realise that there are more effective ways of stopping the spread).  But just because we have a two metre rule and want to keep our distance from others, it doesn’t mean we have to become socially isolated or isolate others.

Social distancing when practiced the right way could benefit a nation, but to treat everyone with distrust, hatred and believing that every other person walking on the street will infect you, is a very negative thing and leads others to believing there is something wrong with them.  It’s bad enough if you already struggle with mental health problems, but imagine that someone feels very down and is bordering on the suicidal on a daily basis, but the only thing that keeps them going is a friendly smile they get on their way to the shops or while going for a jog.  Imagine how that person must feel now that everyone turns away from them, scowls at them and treats them like they’ve got the plague.  That same person’s mental health could be tipped over the edge, they might actually feel there’s little more to look forward to and live for. 😦

Switch off the news and practice social kindness

I keep advocating it, but turning off the news is the single best thing you could do for your mental health now, and your physical health too.  Despite the trust that you may put into the news channels and social media reports of what is happening in the world, when you look at the data out there and do some very basic research, you will find that the number of people infected with, and actually dying from this virus is not as high as the media make it sound (when compared with other viral and bacterial causes of death).  Sure it’s a virus that might eventually infect a lot of people in the long term, but the huge majority of all of us will survive it and feel no worse than catching the common winter flu (so many people have had really mild symtoms).  But the chances of catching it and how badly it affects us will be far worse if we stress ourselves out with fear of it, and compromise our immune systems.  The news, like it always has been, likes to sensationalize everything and will always give you the facts in the darkest and most upsetting way possible – think about it, when has the news ever been overly positive about anything?  It wouldn’t keep you tuned in if they made the news sound bland, boring and too happy would it?

Switching off the news and not listening to social media reports (or too many other people’s scary posts on the subject) will be better for your immune system as you won’t be feeling so much stress. (you can read about why the immune system is in trouble if you listen to the news and live in fear, by reading last week’s post here).  But you can also begin by practicing social kindness too, especially when outdoors.

The next time you find yourself out for a walk or going to the shops, remember to smile at people.  Don’t look at them and fear they will make you sick, it’s highly unlikely that they are actually ill and a smile could be enough to make them feel like the day is really good.  Smiling at others even if they aren’t prepared to smile back is a lovely thing to do and if you spot someone nearby that you know or just want to say something to, don’t be afraid of raising your voice and saying it, even at a two metre distance.

Don’t socially isolate

Practicing social distancing doesn’t mean practicing social isolation.  Just because we’re all supposed to keep apart from each other, doesn’t mean we aren’t still allowed to talk to one another, to say hello, to smile at others as we pass them by* and we don’t have to act weird when we need to cross into the same space.  Social isolation is a terrible thing, and something that many people have lived with for years.  Social isolation can lead to many mental health problems and for some can cause their lives to be shorter and sadder.  When social distancing was enforced, it wasn’t social isolation we agreed to and yet so many now seem to want to enforce the complete isolation of others, or want nothing to do with each other, which if you think of it for a moment…is very very sad.

As humans we are a social species and will always need interactions with others in order to feel happiness and love.  For some of you getting this interaction from family you live with is enough, but for others it’s the contact with people they meet on the street or in shops that gives people those few precious minutes of social interaction and a feeling of ease and happiness.  Now is an important time for us to all feel a sense of happiness inside, it helps boost our immune systems and ultimately that will save lives.  So please begin to think about others the next time you see them on the street, and say hello and act kindly towards them.  Don’t look at others and run away from them, scowl or feel disgusted by them, because when this is all eventually over and you look back at how you acted during this time…will you be proud of the person you became during these difficult times, or will you feel embarrased at how selfish, distrusting and unpleasant you truly were?

*If you are genuinely worried about passing someone on the street because there isn’t enough space and you’ll have to go near each other and breathe each other’s air then do what I’ve always done when I’ve passed by someone who’s been coughing or sneezing and I’ve been afraid of catching their virus (I have OCD so always get paranoid about getting sick) and simply hold your breath for a few seconds as you walk past…it beats walking into a lamppost or a tree to get away! 😉 (honestly someone nearly did that!) And it’s always worked – I’m in the vulnerable category and I haven’t been truly sick from a virus  for many, many years and I put that down to not stressing or worrying about getting sick (and washing my hands and face when I get home) 🙂

How have you been affected by social distancing?  Have you noticed people acting differently towards you?  Have you been acting too suspiciously towards other people when you see them?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂