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When a mere 6 feet can feel like miles

The recent 2014 Ebola virus traveled across a huge swath of west Africa through direct contact. A primary accelerant was the frequency and proximity of their social closeness that was a part of everyday cultural life.

Humans are wired to be social animals; that is how we as a species has survived. Physical touching knitted a fabric of togetherness for west Africans, important to their survival where governments weren’t stable or lacked resources and life uncertain. That also created a transmission superhighway for Ebola. To survive, west Africans had to rip up the social tapestry ingrained in their biology and traditions. This wreaked havoc on west African culture — West Africans survived; their traditions and identity suffered greatly.

Six years later, the coronavirus is spreading around the world, and the only way to beat it is to maintain six feet of separation from others. We don’t want to be the on ramp for a virus. In our haste to move away, we seldom account for how the virus and social distancing makes those among us already at risk due to mental health concerns feel — we survive, but at what cost?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports higher number of calls to their hotline. With a forecast of circulation of the virus of months, not weeks, uncertainty breeds a clinical level of anxiety and stress, due to social distancing exacerbating those feelings while also standing in the way of support.

“For those who may already struggle with feelings of isolation due to depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, social distancing could increase those feelings of loneliness and isolation,” said Krystal Lewis, clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health. She also cautioned to watch for behaviors that signal adverse reactions to daily living such as sleep deprivation, mood swings, lack of focus, self-medication through drugs and alcohol and further isolation.

There are a few behaviors we advocate in our wellness and resilience-building Life Fitness approach for female veterans struggling from their military experiences, including trauma, to mitigate the mental health effects of the virus and social distancing and build resilience. Engaging in mindful activities that keep one centered in the moment and involve movement indoors, or out in nature, can slow down rising levels of stress due to uncertainty. Those activities also help quiet feelings of anxiousness that stem from past experiences that become more pronounced as the effect of the virus seems more suffocating.

Breathing exercises, meditation and yoga can center one to the present. For many, spring has started or is just around the corner. Doing these outside or taking simple walks to parks or just working in gardens, heeding the need to keep “your distance,” can enhance mindfulness through the soothing balm of nature while minimizing the proximity to the virus. Expressive creative behaviors such as art-making, writing/journaling, playing music and others keep you in the moment, while creating a space to confront the fears caused by anxious thoughts.

Connecting to something larger, such as nature or faith, can be important to managing isolation and depression. Maintaining connections to support groups such as, for example, Narcotic Anonymous, or those for trauma survivors can be critical. Our phones or computers, something many west Africans didn’t have, can give that lifeline: Facebook, facetiming, Whats App or just calling, can’t replace the physical comfort of being close, but it works.

Every day we wake up in the morning during this time of uncertainty is another day closer to easing our anxiety and another day we are stronger. Every day we work on making the miles just six feet.