Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

Take a Break From Social Media and Cuddle

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

EEarlier in this series, I talked about social contagion — whereby emotions are passed between people just like germs. Recently, a reporter asked me what was more infectious: a virus or social contagion? The answer is simple. Social contagion is much more infectious. Why? We can prevent the spread of coronavirus by keeping a distance of about six feet, which is how far a sneeze can travel. But someone can sneeze on your brain with their anxiety from anywhere in the world.

Social media is the perfect vector for spreading anxiety and panic. And just like washing your hands and social distancing can prevent the physical spread of coronavirus, there are also ways to prevent the spread of social viruses.

Here are some simple tips.

When you find the intensity of our current situation creeping up on you, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What do I need right now?

If you are looking for news, go right to true sources of reliable information. Do rely on the World Health Organization for accurate information on coronavirus, but don’t get sucked into your colleague’s worrisome feed. Remember that popular media outlets check sources and try to get things right, but don’t forget, they’re also competing for your attention — so they might report something that later turns out to be debunked.

If you are looking for connection with others, step back and ask yourself: Do I have the habit of scrolling through my social media feed when I’m bored or looking to see what is happening in the world? Now is a good time to recognize that habit. Walking down the social media “street” in a free moment in the past was not a big deal because, on the whole, people were posting about relatively benign stuff. Now, scrolling is akin to walking through an anxious crowd — many of whom are socially sneezing worry and fear. The more you scroll, the more likely you are to catch that social contagion and pass it on.

We are all trying to love each other from afar. Now is the time to express that love again and again.

So, if you’re looking for connection, take a break from social media and cuddle instead. I won’t go through all of the science behind how hugging and cuddling boost the immune system and releases oxytocin. Even though my research these days is focused on neuroscience and the clinical applications of mindfulness training, I went to graduate school to study why we get sick when we’re stressed and ended up getting my PhD in immunology. Here’s what I learned in short: Cuddling is good for your health. But you don’t have to trust my science. Try it for yourself.

If you have family members, take a break from checking the news, find your spouse or partner or kids, tell them you love them, and give them a 15-second hug.

If you live alone but have pets, do the same thing.

If you live alone without pets, practice this yoga pose that I made up. It’s called the “hug pose.” Stand up and stretch your arms back behind you. Now move your arms forward, and give yourself a big hug. If you have a physical limitation, you can simply hold yourself in your heart. Try this before dismissing it as not for you (the pushback can be an indication that you really could use a hug right now, and the only way to see if this helps is to do the experiment for yourself).

We are all trying to love each other from afar: our family members, our friends, and all those who are sick and suffering. Now is the time to express that love again and again.

I’ll end with a page from the book my wife and I have been reading before bed each night called The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy.

“Life is difficult but you are loved.”

Remember that, and please spread kindness and connection today. Let it be the new infection that helps us move forward.

Onward together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in watching a short video of this material (with a cameo appearance by my cat), I’ve created one here.

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. @judbrewer

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