This Mental Health Matters was written by Josh Whitelaw, School-based Therapeutic Behavioral Services (TBS), Ravenwood Health

Months ago, in March, I was one of those people who found themselves in a never-ending grocery store line. My cart was filled with necessary toiletries and canned/packaged food. I looked around and, like a scene out of a blockbuster movie, I noticed that shelves were being completely emptied by shoppers like myself. We all had the similar goal of having enough products to last a state-wide lock down that could (and did) happen.

I look back on that experience, and wonder how many others in that store shared the same fears as me. I also wonder how many of us needed a connection that could not be given with our masked faces. In the months that followed, permanent and temporary loss of social connections marked many of our lives. We suddenly, and unwillingly, had the ability to meet face-to-face taken from us. I often think of that age old saying, “distance makes the heart grow fonder”; although, after such a prolonged period of time, we should rather think of that saying as, “distance makes the heart long for company.”

It is proven that human beings need social connection. Just searching the terms “social connection and well-being” will bring you to an endless amount of results, each concluding that connecting with other people is one way that we develop and maintain not only emotional, but physical well-being. Symptoms, mental or physical, of anxiety and depression have been seen to improve when the affected person identifies a strong and positive social connection/community.

So, what is the problem? Simple, and obvious. Currently, our social world is regulated by social distancing, quite literally the opposite of social connection. We stand six feet apart from others in the store, barely anybody goes to the movies, and family gatherings are hotly debated by experts. Now, as the holidays grow nearer, we find ourselves wondering: how do we do meet, without risking the safety of ourselves and others?

I do not claim to have the answers to this social dilemma, but there are vast amounts of activities that have been adapted to fit this social distancing world we are living in. Thankfully, we have developed technology that allows us to see, or talk with, one another at the click of a button. Many people are having driveway gatherings, spacing out six feet and catching up. Netflix and other streaming services are creating ways in which to watch the same movie with friends that don’t even have to be in the same country as you.

Below are a few of these adapted holiday-themed activities, that can help us feel connected with one another this season. I hope it serves as encouragement to you. Even though we may not be able to meet in person, we can still enjoy the company of those we love.

· Holiday Book Club, via video conferencing – This holiday season, I started a reading list of books I would like to read before Christmas. No matter what holiday you celebrate, compiling a list of relevant books and reading them alongside friends and family is a great way to connect. Meeting via Zoom or Google Meet can assist us in seeing one another’s full reactions to the chapters discussed.

· Holiday Meals, via video conferencing – Often, we gather at one person’s house to enjoy company and conversation with friends and family. Meeting on a video platform can helps us still enjoy that time, just in a different way than in the past. If you are the one who enjoys cooking the meal, consider dropping off portions to the houses of your would-be guests.

· Movie Nights, via an online streaming platform – Netflix, and other streaming platforms, have created a way to watch the same movie with others who are not in your house. Directions for this can be found online.

· Non-technology ways to connect – post cards/holiday cards, socially distanced sledding/snow-shoeing, acts of kindness (like paying for someone’s order in the drive-thru, or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway), or Christmas light viewing with your family.

No matter what you choose to do, I urge you to connect with others in some way. The science of social connection vs. isolation never fails to highlight the positive impact that connection has on brain/body health. Happy Holidays and stay safe!

Josh is currently reading: The Body Keeps the Score by: Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.