When Social Distancing Becomes Social Isolation: How Online Therapy Helps

Man waving during online therapy sessionWe are in unprecedented times with the outbreak of COVID-19, and we are all striving towards best practices around hygiene and social distancing.

This is an incredibly difficult time to be alone for many. If you are working from home and keeping yourself isolated in order to avoid infection, you are doing the right thing. This is actually pro-social behavior in service of our communities right now.

However, when these right actions backfire on us—when our minds begin a negative cycle of withdrawing from all life—we may create a downward spiral into negative thinking. Therapists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) understand that negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions such as panic, fear, and hopelessness. These feelings can lead to further negative actions, and the cycle continues to feed upon itself. This self-destructive cycle can wreak havoc not only on our emotional lives, but on our immune systems as well.

Stress Reduces the Strength of Your Immune System

“Living with fear and panic activates our sympathetic nervous system, which releases fight-or-flight stress hormones and can deplete precious resources we need to support a healthy immune system. A robust and strong immune system is an excellent first-line defense against invading viruses and bacteria,” says integrative and functional San Francisco based psychiatrist Karin Hastik, MD.

Furthermore, neuroscience guru Dan Siegel states: “[The mind] occurs throughout the body, in the distributed nervous system, which monitors and influences energy and information flowing through our heart and our intestines, and even shapes the activity of our immune system.”

We all need a healthy immune system to protect us right now. Limiting your media intake may be one way to aid your immune system in becoming more resilient. While quarantine is one measure to keep us healthy, it can be difficult to stay out of negative emotions when we isolate in front of the TV and watch fear-inducing news about the coronavirus pandemic.

Online Therapy Can Reduce Feelings of Isolation

What else can you do to stop this negative cycle when all the media around you relay such catastrophic information? How can you do more to boost your immune system, which is potentially your primary defense against COVID-19 at this time?

Consider reaching out to an online therapist and connecting via videoconferencing for help.

Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences who studies the link between mental and immune health says, “There is some evidence that it may be better to video conference versus having a regular phone call to reduce feelings of isolation.”

While it may seem counterintuitive to attempt authentic and meaningful connection through technology, the neurobiology of attachment speaks to the fact that mirror neurons are activated while in attunement within a relationship—even through a screen.

In Praszkier’s 2014 article, Empathy, Mirror Neurons, and SYNC, in which he speaks of our engagement with film, he states, “The mirror neurons embedded in our brain reflect the movement and sounds seen on the screen and beef up the spectator’s empathy. More than that, a body-based, empathy-kindling path (called kinesthetic empathy) induces an inner image of movements seen onscreen. The observer essentially ‘internally simulates’ the observed movements and, without actually moving, feels his own body configuration change in response.” My clinical work as a somatic movement therapist affirms this as well.

Interpersonal Neurobiology: Mirror Neurons Create Empathy While Teleconferencing

Mirror neurons in synchrony, resonating together, create empathy in human relationships as well. “Connections with visceral and emotional circuitry now allow the same systems to support emotional resonance, attunement, and empathy. It is hypothesized that mirror systems and resonance behaviors evolved into our ability to attune to the emotional states of others,” says Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. When one attunes to another within a healthy and secure attachment, mirror neurons inside the brain and body rise to the occasion, in effect elevating consciousness and physical well-being during the attunement process.

Siegel speaks about how our very minds are created through the context of shared information with others. “The mind is a relational process. Energy and information flow between and among people, and they are monitored and modified in this shared exchange,” says Seigel.

Securely Attaching to a Therapist Can Help You Stay Emotionally and Physically Healthy

Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, says, “If you haven’t yet had the help of enough true others to aid you in claiming the birthright of what I call your inner base of resilience, you can use the new experiences in new relationships to recover it now.” A healthy and secure attachment to a therapist can help you navigate through your anxiety and fear and shed light on how negative beliefs can be undermining your best intentions. Rewiring your brain towards positive thinking can create more buoyant emotions within you, which are protective factors against disease.

We all need as much positivity as we can get right now while this pandemic becomes our new reality. Working with an online therapist can be a great way to make sure you stay healthy, in your mind, body, and spirit while navigating your way through these uncertain times.

Editor’s note: We know and understand how current events may be impacting many mental health professionals’ commitments to their clients, family, and personal well-being. If you’re a therapist or other mental health professional, we want to help you maintain as much normalcy as possible during the next few weeks. If you’re ready to pick up sessions right where you left off, we’re so excited to share that we’re officially offering our members a telehealth solution. We hope this closes the gap and eases social distancing for you and your patients. Learn more and get started here.

References:

  1. Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
  2. Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being. Novato, CA: New World Library.
  3. McCaig, A. (2020, March 19). How stress and loneliness can make you more likely to get COVID-19. Retrieved from https://news.rice.edu/2020/03/19/how-stress-and-loneliness-can-make-you-more-likely-to-get-covid-19-2
  4. Praszkier, R. (2014, December 14). Empathy, mirror neurons and SYNC. Mind & Society, 15, 1–25. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-014-0160-x
  5. Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Heidi Landgraf, LPCC, RSMT, REAT, RYT, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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