What if we were told that the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus was to smoke 15 cigarettes a day? What would you do?
Loneliness, we know from the research, can be as bad for your health as smoking. It’s more predictive of mortality than obesity. And loneliness itself was a pandemic long before COVID-19 got its name. (Between 1990 and 2010, there was a threefold increase in the number of Americans who said they had no one in whom they could confide.)
So canceling church, school, work and sports means we are doing something that can be hazardous to our health — in order to save lives.
We’ve heard a lot about what not to do. Now it’s time to talk about what we can do. “Look, I wash my hands a lot,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But if that’s all people are told to do, it only takes you so far.”
There are at least four specific activities that can help compensate for all the things we are not doing, according to the research and my conversations with disaster experts, psychologists and epidemiologists.
Loneliness creates a kind of toxic chain reaction in our body: It produces stress, and the chronic release of stress hormones suppresses our immune response and triggers inflammation. And the elderly, who are most at-risk of dying from COVID-19, are more likely to say they are lonely.
Fear also causes the release of stress hormones. And a pandemic involves massive amounts of uncertainty — by definition, the kind that won’t go away quickly. That kind of ongoing stress is hard for anyone to handle.
So what is the antidote? First, anyone who can exercise should do more of it now, every day. Physical exercise reduces stress and boosts immune functioning. “Outdoor activities are good. Going for a walk, riding a bike, those are all great,” says Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. You can even do this with a friend, assuming you both feel healthy and are not in high-risk groups (and assuming you stay six feet apart in places such as San Francisco, where public health officials have so ordered).
And there’s never been an easier time to exercise without going outside or to the gym. (My current “gym” is on my phone, through apps such as Aaptiv, as well as free online yoga classes.)
Second, social closening. (Yes, that’s a word, it turns out.) Relationships are as good for the immune system as exercise. In a meta-analysis of 148 studies that followed more than 300,000 people for an average of eight years, researchers found that positive social relationships gave people a 50 percent greater chance of surviving over time compared with people with weak social ties. This connectedness had a bigger impact on mortality than quitting smoking.
To keep your relationships active, the phone is your lifeline. I’ve set a personal goal to talk (actually talk, not text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.
The one upside of every disaster I’ve covered over the past two decades is that people feel a strong impulse to come together and help each other. So far, I’ve seen that same tendency play out among friends and neighbors, despite social distancing, and we all have to work to keep that going. The coronavirus gives us an excuse to check in with one another.
The third antidote is mindfulness. If you have resisted this trend so far, now may be the time to reconsider. Meditation reduces inflammation and enhances our immune functions, literally undoing the damage of self-isolation. There is evidence that prayer can have a similar effect.
I’ve been using the meditation app Headspace for 10 minutes every day for the past two years. The big surprise is that meditation is not about clearing your mind. It’s about managing your attention, and it’s a hard skill to learn without some kind of guidance. It may sound kind of woo woo, but the science is persuasive.
Fourth, do something small for someone else. In surveys, people say volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and reduces anxiety. In Ireland, a woman named Helen O’Rahilly has helped organize nearly 6,000 volunteers to help elderly and immune-compromised people get groceries, almost entirely through Twitter. … My son and another kid on our street created fliers offering to help run errands for anyone who can’t go outside.
Wherever they strike, disasters have a way of revealing our preexisting weaknesses. But they also open up opportunities. I’ve seen this again and again, from communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina to families devastated by 9/11. There is a golden hour after disaster strikes, a chance to come together and build resilience.
But this doesn’t happen automatically. We have to seize the opportunity, without fear. Viruses may be contagious, but so is courage.
Amanda Ripley is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why.