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Friendship is important at any time, but I’d argue that strong, solid connections with friends have never been more essential to our mental health than they are now. And yet, the pandemic can also bring new challenges for friendships.

For me, the connections with my friends are fundamental to my emotional and spiritual health. G getting together with my friends is one of the great joys in my life. I’m grateful that we live in an age where we can easily connect with friends via video chat, email, text and phone even when we can’t be with them in person, but as wonderful as those online connections are, they’re not the same as being able to hug your friends, or even just sitting across the same table from them.

Early on in the pandemic, I did a lot of Zoom calls with friends, but I found those increasingly frustrating as time went on.  It took me a while to figure out why these Zoom sessions were so unsatisfactory for me, but then I started seeing more and more articles about “Zoom fatigue.” Finally, it made sense to me.

“When you’re online, sometimes not only is there a little bit of an artificialness to the interaction but there’s literally a lag that’s built in from the technology, and that is quite off-putting for our brains,” said science journalist Lydia Denworth, the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond told Greater Good Magazine. “Our brains recognize that as a different kind of interaction, and they don’t like it very much. I think that’s one reason why some people are being driven crazy by Zoom. And if you have a group on Zoom, it’s very hard figuring out who’s going to speak next. There’s a way that we handle that with nonverbal cues in person that is harder to pull off virtually.”

I’m grateful that it’s still safe to do outdoor visits with friends, as long as both parties are comfortable with doing that. Nothing short of holing up in your house and never leaving is 100% safe, but I consider outdoor visits while observing proper distancing safe enough. The minor risk more than offsets the benefits to my mental health.

While no one in my circle of friends scoffs at public health recommendations such as wearing masks and physical distancing, I’ve still found that even among my close friends, comfort levels with what feels safe and what doesn’t can vary widely. I try not to judge anyone. I have one friend who’s not comfortable seeing me even in an outdoor setting. That feels excessively cautious to me, but it’s her choice, and while I miss seeing her, I respect her position.

Some friendships may not survive this pandemic. “I think we’re going to see a shift in what friendships continue going forward, based on discrepancies in values and how they are reflected in social-distancing measures,” Grace Dowd, a psychotherapist in Austin, told health and psychology writer Ashley Abramson. “A lot of people aren’t sure if they can go back to a close relationship with a certain person because of what they’re seeing.”

Abramson suggests that you consider context and character before you judge another person’s behavior. Does your friend have a history of behaving irresponsibly, or do you simply have different levels of risk tolerance?

Communication is key to navigate friendships during these times, but keep in mind that everyone is feeling overwhelmed these days, and emails and texts may not get answered as timely as you’re used to. “The mark of a good friend during these times shouldn’t be how often we’re checking in on one another; it should be how well we recognize that our friends’ priorities must be securing their own oxygen masks before helping us with ours,” writes Anna Borges for Self Magazine.

And finally, a word about the term “social distancing:” I wish that people would stop using it. We’re being asked to maintain a physical distance, not to avoid all contact with other human beings. We never needed social contact more than we do now, and the term “social distancing” undermines that need in subtle ways. Won’t you join me in eliminating “social distancing” from your vocabulary and call it “physical distancing” instead?

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