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The Mental Health Benefits of a Social Bubble During COVID-19

mental health benefits of a social bubble

Verywell / Nez Riaz

In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, a "social bubble" is a clearly defined group of people who agree to limit their in-person social interactions to only visit with each other. Social bubbles also have been called pods or "quaranteams" and can include family members, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. 

“Establishing a social bubble is one way people are trying to cope,” says Georgia Gaveras, DO, chief psychiatrist and co-founder of Talkiatry. “It’s important that people find ways to interact safely during the pandemic and not put anyone’s health at risk in the process.”

Who we bring into our social bubble depends on many factors, including health risk, willingness to wear a mask or get vaccinated, and mutually agreed-upon behavior. No matter if your bubble consists of two people or 10, in-person social interaction offers many mental health benefits that can’t be ignored. 

Mental Health Benefits of Social Bubbles

So long as you’re practicing safety precautions and limiting your numbers, there are many advantages to being a part of a social bubble. Participating may have a positive impact on your overall mental health.

Combats Loneliness 

Americans have been battling loneliness since long before the pandemic began. According to a Cigna report, three in five Americans reported feeling lonely in 2019. While social distancing and mask wearing are critical components in the fight against COVID-19, loneliness is a byproduct of this pandemic that can’t be ignored.

“People are losing the warmth and comfort of social interactions, which can be invaluable to those who are feeling lonely or upset, especially during the long winter months,” says Dr. Gaveras.

One of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness is to connect with others. Joining virtual events, video calling with friends, and chatting from a social distance can help curb the need for connection, but a social bubble offers more intimacy, especially to those who need physical touch, which we all, at a human level, do.

Enables Physical Touch

As human beings, we crave physical touch, as it's directly correlated to our well-being. According to Sam Von Reiche, PsyD, PA, psychologist, and author of Rethink Your Shrink: The Best Alternatives to Talk Therapy and Meds, touch is critical for our mental health.

Touching others can help relieve feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and suffering. While technology allows us to stay connected and supported, it’s nearly impossible to replicate physical intimacy through a screen. 

Being in the same space as loved ones can feel intimate these days, but being able to touch, without masks and without the fear of contracting COVID-19, is a luxury that many of us miss, and for good reason. If created safely, a social bubble offers that close proximity, in which you can touch, hug, laugh, and play. 

For children, in particular, physical touch is fundamental to development. It's something that’s missing from the socially distant classroom and online learning communities.

This is why Stephanie Solheim, CEO of Toledo Web Designers & Digital Marketing, started her own social bubble. She and her best friend both have very young kids, some of whom are considered high-risk. 

“We both have been diligent about keeping our quarantine crew small for the protection of our children, while still being able to enjoy each other's company and let the kids have some play time with each other,” says Solheim.

“[The children] get the sensory experience of physically interacting with others, being in a different environment, and not just interacting with screens all day for socialization and learning,” Solheim says.

How to Start a Social Bubble

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve personally maintained my own nine-person social bubble. In my crew, four members are in their sixties and one is a newborn, so I’ve limited my outside-of-home activities to grocery runs, outdoor walks, brief shopping excursions, and meal pickups. I’ve said “no” to wedding invitations, in-person dining, travel, and other activities in order to protect and spend time with those in my bubble. 

“There are very few people who can be trusted with your life, and so your bubble should be very limited to those whose judgment and behavior you can absolutely count on,” says Dr. Von Reiche. 

When starting your own social bubble, be critical about who you let in. Maintaining a safe social bubble requires trust, planning, and mutual decision-making. Here’s what Dr. Von Reiche recommends:

  • Talk to those you know who are most in need of in-person interactions, considering both practical and psychological reasons. 
  • Closely evaluate who you trust enough to follow the social bubble rules.
  • Make sure those joining the bubble are extremely reliable and have a track record of carefully social distancing and wearing masks.
  • Consider how well each person can limit their exposure, including what job they have, if they’ve been vaccinated, and what activities they consider “safe.”
  • Have a response plan in case someone in your bubble gets sick.

These conversations aren't easy to have, as they require honesty and openness, but they're necessary when you're dealing with a serious pandemic. Try to be patient as you confront loved ones. Explain why you want to start a social bubble and why it's necessary to set boundaries around that bubble. If people aren't willing to have these conversations with you, then you may not want them in your bubble.

“The social bubble is an interesting concrete manifestation of the kind of healthy boundaries mental health professionals teach their clients to have in general—only to be in safe, secure relationships with those they actually trust,” says Dr. Von Reiche.

If you’ve found the right people who are on the same page as you, a small social bubble can offer many benefits, but you have to make sure you’re being smart about what you do, who you see, and how you behave so you don’t put yourself or those in your bubble at risk. 

Julia Williams, a travel blogger who built a social bubble of six adults, all of whom are childless and work from home, says, “If anyone from our quarantine crew sees someone from outside the bubble, they may be voted ‘off the island’ for a couple of weeks.”

Alternatives to a Social Bubble

You may not have the option of building a social bubble. Maybe you’re a frontline worker, battling a chronic disease that puts you in a high-risk category, or living alone. You still need to find ways to connect with others, no matter how challenging.

“To protect your mental health, you need strong social support,” says Dr. Gaveras. Here are some ideas to consider if you haven't already:

  • Join an online support group.
  • Implement weekly or monthly video calls with close loved ones.
  • Start a virtual book club or join a virtual event.

You may not have the benefit of physical, in-person intimacy, but you can still engage with others in ways that help you de-stress. If you feel comfortable enough, consider socially distant, outdoor meetups. 

Even if your time is limited, you must recognize and prioritize your mental health needs. Practicing meditation for five minutes every morning, joining a virtual workout class, or going outside once a day are small, but important habits that can help you keep your spirits up. 

“Blurring the boundaries between work, sleep, and eating could potentially lead people to associate emotions from one area of life to another, so it is critical to maintain changes of scenery, including changing your clothes and taking care of hygiene and appearance,” says Dr. Gaveras.

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  1. Durkin J, Jackson D, Usher K. Touch in times of COVID-19: Touch hunger hurtsJ Clin Nurs. 2021;30(1-2):e4-e5. doi:10.1111/jocn.15488