Social Distancing: The Psychological & Emotional Impact

I sit in front of Central Park’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ statue – the sun shining down on the right side of my body, warming my right shoulder. I hear the tingle of dog tags and I look up just in time to see the cutest little grey and white doggo trot past. Beyond the dog, people marvel and take pictures of the massive bronze statue – many electing to sit on one of the many metal mushrooms. I don’t love this statue because of how it looks (I actually find it to be an unsettling combination of cool and creepy); I love it because ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a recurring story in my life. It’s not my favorite story, but it holds a special place in my heart…

… … …

I wrote this in my journal five days ago, sitting on a bench by myself, while the world around me delivered news of more school closures and updated coronavirus warnings and the increasing tension of general community shutdown. It had been raining earlier that morning, but the sun had come out and the weather was much warmer than anticipated, so I seized the opportunity to get out of the house after staying inside for two full days. I was itching to go somewhere – anywhere.

The Alice in Wonderland statue is exactly a mile and a half from my new home; it takes me thirty-three minutes to walk there (according to the handy-dandy Google maps). I didn’t intend to visit Alice and her Wonderland friends that day, though. When I set out from home, I started walking towards the park, feeling excited to finally get outside on such a gorgeous day and letting my impulses direct me to the perfect place to spend the afternoon. I needed to take a break from focusing on the multitude of fears and uncertainties we are facing as a city, as a country, and as a world. I just wanted space from it because I could feel the stress and panic impacting my mental and emotional health – I needed relief.

So off to the park I went! I packed up my bag, including some good reading material, my journal, and my water bottle (the essentials), and intentionally left my anxiety and worries. Time in the park was just what I needed…although my anxiety and worries seemed to have some intense separation anxiety. I felt them running to catch up with every step I took towards Central Park. By the time I had walked those thirty-three minutes between home and Alice, the stress and weight were so overwhelming that stopping to sit with the funny folks of Wonderland seemed about as far as I was going to get.

I plopped down on a bench as probably the only person in the vicinity not interested in taking a picture of the whimsical statue, but probably not the only person carrying around worries and fears about this unprecedented moment in history.

I sat on that bench, in a bizarre limbo state – maintaining the intention of not entertaining worrisome thoughts, but holding the full emotional weight of them all the same. I journaled, I walked, I listened to music, I read, I wrote.

Then, I went home.

… … …

Nothing magical or monumental happened that day. But five days later, I think about that moment still. That day I sat in the park, I felt exhausted. I was carrying so many feelings that I couldn’t even begin to decipher what they were or where they were from. To be honest, I didn’t even have the capacity to do much of anything except feel like I was living under a ton of bricks.

I still carry that weight of anxiety around with me, though – it hasn’t gone away. I’ve dipped in and out of depression for the past week, and living stress-free seems to be a fleeting sensation, coming to offer brief moments of respite, but never staying long. Not much has changed since I hung out with Alice in the park, except one thing – I can identify why I am feeling the way that I am.

There is a lot to feel worried about as a collective nation. As far as I can tell, no one has ever experienced anything like this in their lives, and we are living in the most uncertain time many of us have probably ever encountered. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and has most of us feeling terrified, for various reasons. We each think differently about this new pandemic and we each have our own response to it.

The more I talk to friends and family, the more I watch the news, the more I read online – the heavier I feel. I feel the collective panic. I feel heartbroken when I think about the people impacted most. I feel infuriated by the hateful behavior this is unleashing in some people.

At the same time, I believe in human resiliency – I know that we will get through this because I also believe in the good of humanity to work collectively to uplift and protect each other. I believe in the power of love and care and kindness and compassion to carry us all out the other side. Despite being brand new and not knowing how to get involved in the more active support efforts, I am still doing what I can to contribute to slowing the spread of this disease. I am engaging in social distancing and the mandates put in place.

It’s not COVID-19 itself that really has me feeling so emotionally overwhelmed – it’s the social distancing.

I love people. After living by myself for over two years in SF, I have realized just how extroverted I am and how much I need good company. I seem to be the one in my family who always wants to spend time with everyone else – I constantly do work downstairs while everyone else stays in their rooms. I try to make plans with my best friends as often as I can when I go home. I hit NYC excited to connect with friends I hadn’t even met yet! I knew that when I moved, the first thing I needed to do was start connecting with people and forming relationships.

As soon as I arrived in NYC, though, everything started shutting down. And when the social distancing mandates began, the depression appeared.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I am living with family right now – otherwise, social distancing would be extremely isolating – but even still, I do not have the support network, friends, and relationships that I long to have in my proximity right now.

Like all churches across the country right now, my new church is only live-streaming services right now, so I can’t connect with the services in-person or meet for fellowship.

Broadway has gone dark until at least mid-April, so I cannot go see any live shows, which is my favorite thing to do in NYC.

All restaurants and bars are closed, so I can’t head to a café to get a coffee and do some writing.

Gatherings of ten people or more have been banned, so I can’t meet with my small group to encourage each other’s spiritual growth or make friends.

I have been talking to my mom and my best friends a lot on the phone, which does admittedly help some, but in truth, it doesn’t satiate my longing to connect with people who are going to be in my life here in NYC. I want to move forward, I want to meet my friends here in NYC, I want to meet my partner – but social distancing feels like it’s driving a wedge in between me and my desire for connection. I feel disconnected, and because I feel disconnected, I feel depressed.

It’s no one’s fault – I don’t blame anyone or anything. These are necessary precautions and I absolutely agree with the decisions that have been made in the interest of the good of the community. We’re doing what is best to help protect and take care of everyone – but that’s also a challenging notion for me.

I have spent my entire life taking care of other people, often at the expense of my own desires and self-worth. So, compounded atop the loneliness I feel from social distancing, I am also experiencing a familiar phenomenon of putting others before myself. Putting others before myself is all well and good as long as I have support and resources to help fill me back up – but I don’t right now. I am my primary source of support, love, and reenergizing, while I work to cultivate those external resources I can call on when my fuel tank is running low.

It’s times like these when I wish I had someone to take care of me.

But I don’t. And that’s okay that I don’t, but it’s also okay that I feel sad about that.

I know this will pass, and until it passes, I will do my part to contribute goodwill, positivity, love, and health, but it’s also okay that I feel angry that my own desires for love, connection, support, and friendship cannot be pursued as fully.

I believe it is vital that we all take care of ourselves and take care of each other, but it’s also okay that we have our own personal reactions to how the coronavirus and social distancing are impacting our own lives. I care about the welfare of everyone, but I also feel sad, angry, frustrated, hopeless, and discouraged as I try to make a new life for myself here. I don’t have an answer to ‘make’ the emotions go away; all I can do is accept that they are there, give myself permission to feel exactly how I do, and engage in self-care as best I can.

… … …

…I’ve learned depression isn’t something I can fight – when I resist it, it just grounds its heels in more. But when I find little reminders to get me through the depression to the other side, then I can ride the wave much easier, and it seems to pass much faster. I know that the root of my depression is anxiety – and stories like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ give me hope to counteract the anxiety and fear. Hope that anything is possible. Hope in the adventure that is life. Hope that I can live the life that I want if I’m willing to believe in it.

… … …

We are part of a community and we are a collective, but we are also individuals, living under different circumstances, with different personalities, with different goals and desires.

This time of uncertainty is stressful for everyone. It’s okay to feel exactly how you are about it. While you work to take care of the community, also work to take care of yourself.

Sending love and health to all of you.

With love and gratitude,


(Cover image photo credit: Amy Humphries from Unsplash)

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