‘We’re in this human experiment’

Two women observe social distancing measures as they speak to each other from adjacent park benches amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in York, England on March 19. Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

SEATTLE — Every evening at 7:30, 500 Seattleites get a text from University of Washington Ph.D. candidate Adam Kuczynski, asking questions that seem like small talk.

But in these days of self-isolation, they have come to mean — and are bound to reveal — much more.

How are you feeling physically? And then: On a scale of one to 10, how outgoing or sociable are you feeling? Do you feel a strong desire to connect? A general sense of anxiety?

The surveys started going out March 14 — the day after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the closure of schools statewide, and banned events of 250 people or larger — and are being sent out for 75 days, as people continue to isolate to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The study — currently unfunded — is being done under the auspices of the UW’s Center for the Science of Social Connection (CSSC), and will add a “real-time” element to what researchers already know about social isolation, loneliness and their related health risks, according to Dr. Jonathan Kanter, a psychological scientist at the CSSC, which has a lab that studies social connectiveness.

The results will shed light on how keeping our physical selves safe from the current pandemic may take a toll on our mental health, and our hearts.

“We’re in this human experiment together right now,” said Kanter, who is supervising Kucszynski’s research. “This study is giving us information in real time.”

And while it is important to follow public-health guidelines, he said, it’s important to know that social isolation “is working against some very basic human crises,” Kanter said. “We yearn to come together and connect, and this is making it more difficult.”

Previous research has shown that social isolation and the resulting loneliness have a negative impact on immune functioning, and raises the level of cortisol, the hormone that activates our “fight or flight” impulse, which can lead to heart disease and increase the risk of premature death.

And isolation can lead to people feeling a stronger sense of threat and anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other clinical conditions.

“In that sense,” Kanter said, “social isolation is working against immunity to the disease. It’s bad.”

Last week, Kuczynski, a graduate student in psychology, kicked off the study with Kanter’s supervision. (They also wrote a piece for The Conversation, a website where academics can write about their work).

“We saw what was about to happen and we thought it was important to understand how people are responding,” Kanter said, “to get a bead on how people are coping. How are they doing, how isolated are they, whether they live alone or not.”

The survey participants were recruited through media stories on the project, and range in age from 18 to 68 years old. Most people in the study (77%) are cisgender women; 13% are men and the last group is transgender women and gender non-conforming individuals. They have a wide range of occupations: Baristas, software engineers, teachers, emergency workers, artists, food- and retail-service workers and students. Sixteen% of participants are parents with children at home. Fifteen% live in a densely populated urban area; 47% in an urban area; 3% in a small town; 31% in the suburbs and 4% in a rural area.

Nineteen percent of participants have a medical condition that puts them at risk for complications associated with COVID-19.

Over the first week of the study, Kuczynski found that people were feeling solidarity with each other. There was sense, he said, that we are all in this together. And — so far — most did not feel lonely, but understood and cared for by each other.

“One of our goals in all of this is to understand how similar we are and how different we are,” Kuczynski said. “Do we all respond the same? And in the psychology literature, the answer is no. There are similarities in what we need and how much we enjoy solitude and being alone, but there are a lot of differences.”

For now, there is a collective feeling of disbelief, mild panic and preparation, which brings people solace.

But Kanter believes that will change.

“As we hunker down over the course of this week and next week, I am expecting all of this to evolve and shift,” Kanter said. “I am worried about how this is going to impact out relationships and health, and a certain subset of people who can easily slip into depression as they are less connected and lose their sources of contact, and stress and financial worries build.”

Kanter and Kuczynski offered ways to offset loneliness and its related risks.

“Just pay attention to it now,” Kuczynski said. “Try to foster connections with other people and to stay as mentally healthy as possible. Do things that give us a sense of mastery and accomplishment, that give us pleasure.”

If you are distancing with people who are close to you and healthy, Kanter said, don’t forget the impact of a gentle hug, or holding someone’s hand.

Exercise at home, or go out for a walk or run, keeping a safe distance from others.

Keep a limit on news consumption and talking about it with each other. Doing so spreads a sense of dread and anxiety.

“It’s important that we go back to the basic dance steps of good relationships right now,” Kanter said. “People are yearning to connect and talk about how they really feel.”

We should also maximize the connectiveness that technology allows: Videochat rather than phone. Phone rather than text.

“The closer to live, the better,” he said. “But any connection is better than no connection.”

One other thing, Kanter said: As we are being forced to socially isolate against a “perceived, uncontrollable threat,” he said, we have a tendency to “circle the wagons” around those who are most like us, and exclude everyone else.

“This plays into some of the acts of prejudice and discrimination around Asian people, (and) the hoarding of things,” Kanter said.

So consider being generous toward neighbors, or someone experiencing homelessness

“That feels, to me, like opening up,” he said. “This is a global pandemic. We have the capacity to come together as a global community.”

Kanter also cited research on giving and altruism, which not only helps the person who receives it, “but has tangible effects on the giver, increasing a sense of well-being and happiness.

“Ultimately, we need to remember that we are all in this together.”

Tribune Wire

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