Socially distanced support: How to be there for friends and family from afar

Experts share the signs that suggest a loved one is going through a hard time

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The coronavirus pandemic has put us all into a unique conundrum – we might be seeking human comfort to deal with uncertainty, but many of us are being told to stay physically distant for our health, or that of others.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum has, somewhat flippantly, called the global lockdown “the greatest psychological experiment in history".

“Due to the general anxiety that comes with the unknown, we are experiencing an elevated level of stress for a long period of time,” says Michael Burich, the co-founder of Synctuition, a mindfulness app.

“Such chronic stress produces cortisol in our system, which constantly puts us in a ‘ready to fight’ mode. While this is great when there is danger, when it happens over a longer period of time, it depletes our adrenal glands.

"This causes fatigue, unhappiness, and lowers our immune system,” says Burich, whose app has been made available for free until Friday, July 31 in 14 countries, including the UAE.

Dr Prateeksha Shetty, clinical psychologist at RAK Hospital voices a similar concern, saying that this period could be doubly difficult for those isolating alone.

“Restricted physical movement and intellectual stimulation may force people to be alone with their thoughts and worries and may even trigger painful memories that they have been able to brush aside in the past.”

However, there is a lot we can do for each other, even as we stay physically apart. If anything, now is a time to go out of our way to be there for others, whether it is by involving people in virtual activities, sending gift hampers across apartments buildings, emirates or other countries, or even simply messaging loved ones to remind them that they have someone to talk to.

Going out of your way to help is doubly important if you feel as though a friend is going through something.

The signs you should look for

Dr Laila Mahmoud, specialist psychiatrist with Medcare Hospital Sharjah, lists some signs that might be a cry for help:

  1. Isolation: if a person who is usually social starts to withdraw from interactions (including virtual communication).

  2. Unusual functioning: at work or in their personal life, if everyday duties that he/she has been performing are being neglected. This can indicate a larger problem. 

  3. Feelings of worthlessness: if a person starts making negative comments about life in general, whether it is directly or through social media, attention must be given and intervention may be required. If the person mentions any dark thoughts, especially related to self-harm, it is important to seek the help of a doctor or therapist immediately.

If you are not sure whether or not a friend or loved one is having a hard time, Mahmoud says social media is an important tool that can be used to reach out – from contacting people privately to putting up posts that fight any stigma against mental illnesses, which in turn can help build trust and encourage people to open up to you.

Here are other ways to be there for friends and family:

Identify those who need help

Shetty says the first step begins with identifying people who might need help, whether this is because of job loss, pay cuts or health concerns. “Offer your presence in case they need to talk to someone during dark days.”

Have a meaningful conversation 

Have a meaningful conversation that goes beyond asking them how they are, Shetty advises. “Try to dig a little deeper. Opening up yourself about how you are feeling can help others open up, too. The overall message that one must send is that we are there for each other despite prevailing circumstances.”

Find new ways to communicate online

Make virtual communication with loved ones part of your daily routine. It does not have to be limited to conversations, either. Mahmoud recommends doing activities such as cooking or exercising together over video call. Virtual games can be played with friends while isolating.

Share positive news

“We have more than enough negativity and negative news pop out on our screens every day. Break the mould by trying to share positive news as much as possible,” recommends Burich.

Support one another 

Small acts of kindness go a long way, from donating your time to help someone in need to offering services for free. "We all have friends who own cafes, shops, restaurants or other type of local business – now is the time to support those businesses as much as possible," says Burich. You never know whose day you might have made slightly better.

Take care of yourself

Shetty says: “One cannot be there for another unless we reflect and acknowledge our own struggles and vulnerabilities. From time to time, conduct a ‘self check-in’, where you become aware of your anxiety and changes in behaviour.

"Ask yourself if you are more withdrawn these days. This is important, as it helps build conversations with your loved ones, too.”