That thing we’ve all been doing by staying home, avoiding large gatherings and maintaining at least six feet of distance from others?
The World Health Organization and other health experts would prefer if we stopped calling the practice “social distancing.”
Instead, they’re opting for the term “physical distancing.”
The reason? The term “social distancing” can imply a sense of disconnection from loved ones. And at a time when being physically isolated from others can take a toll on mental health, the organization wants to emphasize how critical it is for people to stay socially connected.
The WHO announced that it was moving away from the term “social distancing” in a briefing on March 20. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious diseases epidemiologist with the WHO, reiterated that stance in a news conference on Wednesday.
“We’ve been saying ‘physical distancing’ because it’s important to remain physically separate but socially connected,” Van Kerkove said, adding that people should be looking after their mental health and that of their loved ones during the pandemic.
“There’s no lockdown on laughter,” she said. “There’s no lockdown on talking to your family and finding ways to connect.”
Social contact is vital for mental health, experts say
Physically staying away from others is one of the most effective ways right now to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Doing so, however, goes against people’s desires for connection and physical touch – and could contribute to feelings of anxiety, loneliness fear and grief that could create a whole other crisis: one of mental health.
Consensual physical contact and in-person interactions release chemicals in the brain and body, including endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin, that can boost happiness and reduce pain and stress. But a hug or a hand around a shoulder that would otherwise offer comfort during a time of uncertainty and fear is now the very thing could endanger people’s physical health.
The absence of physical contact and human connection can take a psychological toll. That’s one of the reasons Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki suggests reframing “social distancing” as “physical distancing.”
“‘Social distancing’ was the wrong term to begin with,” Zaki said in a Q&A with the university. “We should think of this time as ‘physical distancing’ to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart.”
That means trying to replicate in-person gatherings and interactions with technologies such as FaceTime and Zoom.
“In fact, I encourage all of us to practice ‘distant socializing.’ Ironically, the same technologies we often blame for tearing apart our social fabric might be our best chance, now, of keeping it together,” Zaki said.
Other experts say the change could be confusing
Even though WHO and some experts are moving away from the term “social distancing,” the phrase could prove hard to shake. The use of the term is now ingrained in the public consciousness and is also in widespread use among government agencies and by media outlets.
Furthermore, some experts have argued that a shift to different terminology could confuse people at a time when accurate dissemination of information is vital.
“My main concern is that this switch in terminology—in the midst of the crisis—violates one of the key principles of effective risk communication, which is to ensure that there is clarity and consistency in messaging,” Lori Peek, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the director of the Natural Hazards Center, wrote in an email to CNN.
“I just don’t want to see members of the public become confused or frustrated during what is already such an uncertain and frightening moment for so many.”