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How to stay connected even when it’s chilly

Are you running out of ideas for how to safely socialize this winter? Carolina experts explain why human interaction is important and offer tips on strengthening social bonds.

Two people in Carolina Blue job near each other.
(Illustration by UNC Creative)

Nearly one year into the global coronavirus pandemic, do you find yourself falling out of touch with friends and colleagues? Or running out of ideas on how to safely socialize, especially as temperatures drop? After your thousandth Zoom happy hour, do you ask yourself, “Why even bother connecting with others?”

Mitch Prinstein has an answer. “Social relationships aren’t just for fun or entertainment. They are very important,” said the John Van Seters Professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are biologically programmed to need them, to seek them, and our bodies respond dramatically when we don’t have them.”

We all know by now that we have to stay masked and keep our distance, but there are still ways that you can gather this winter and feed the need for social interaction. Drawing on expertise shared by physicians and other health care professionals at UNC Health Talk and a few examples from Carolina staff and alumni, here are some ideas on how to stay close even when you have to keep your distance.

Get a coat

Native North Carolinians aren’t oriented toward winter sports or spending time outdoors when the temperatures drop. How does the Triangle have an NHL hockey team? It might have something to do with the growth of population that hails from colder regions. But wearing the right outerwear should make it more bearable for Southerners to take part in outdoor activities.

“Layers are always a good idea, and the most vulnerable parts of your body are your fingers and toes and nose, so make sure you have a pair of gloves available and socks,” said UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff. “If you have little ones, a good rule of thumb is to dress them in one more layer than you’re comfortable in — both inside and outside.”

Go for a hike

Once you’ve figured out what to wear, what should you do outside? “There are plenty of places to go hiking and camping where you see very few people, so those could be good choices,” said Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention. The North Carolina Botanical Garden has beautiful gardens, trails and preserves to explore. Or explore one of these five hiking trails within walking distance of campus.

Looking to get out and about throughout the Triangle? The Triangle Land Conservancy has a hiking challenge for any interested citizen — complete six hikes at six public TLC preserves within a year and win a membership to the conservation organization. If you’re interested in making strides before winter’s end, check out the conservancy’s mini hiking challenge that runs through March 31.

Exercise together, even if virtually

There are countless opportunities to get fit online, but sometimes you need a partner to keep you coming back to the computer. “Finding a friend to commit you to that workout will help you stay accountable,” said Lauren Rosella, wellness instructor at REX Wellness Center of Garner, North Carolina. “If you have a workout buddy, that’s one of the best ways to be successful because you’re committing yourself to somebody else, and they’re committing to you, so you hold each other accountable.”

In mid-March 2020, George Barrett, executive director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center and a Carolina alumnus, started getting on Zoom for a quick exercise routine with two friends at the beginning of the pandemic. Their goal? To work up to 100 pushups. “It became honestly the most regular and consistent things in our lives during the pandemic, because everything is so uncertain, everything was changing so much, there was so much going on. … It became a new life routine of being able to consistently see your close friends every day.”

Reach out by phone or mail

Even if you can’t connect in person, reaching out can still make you feel connected. “I feel best when I text or call a friend each day, starting with ‘How are you doing?’ and ending with ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’” said Adam Goldstein, director of UNC Tobacco Intervention Programs.

“Contact your best friend from elementary school, middle school or high school,” said UNC Health psychiatrist Bradley Gaynes. “The lockdown has given us the opportunity to slow down — a lot — and reconnect with folks who were so important to us before, but whom we haven’t had the chance to think about for a while,” Gaynes said. “Find them, contact them, catch up.”

And if you’re feeling creative, put together a care package for a far-away friend or family member.

If you must Zoom, have fun

Online meetings have become a part of our daily existence. But when you’ve been in front of a screen for your entire workday, you may be reticent to link up with friends using your laptop. The secret may be actually doing a fun activity when you’re virtual.

“It’s not just information exchanged through an interview. You have to actually have fun together,” Prinstein said. “When you both share the same moment of fun, that creates the bonding.”

Early in the pandemic School of Government employees Sonja Matanovic and Mary Judge created the “Bad TV Social Club,” a weekly meeting to discuss the latest in binge-worthy television. They work together to pick the show, set an agenda and invite colleagues. All are welcome to join, even if they haven’t seen the latest episode.

“We followed the same format in order to make it easy for others to participate and for ourselves to replicate from week to week,” said Matanovic. “When COVID happened, gone were all the lunches that you can have with your co-workers. Gone were all the snack breaks or the walks to the Law Bar or the errand runs with your co-workers — the little things you do to get to know each other outside of work, so this was a way to get to know your co-workers outside of work.”

Help others

One way to stay both safe and social is lending a hand to volunteer with local organizations. “Volunteering is both good for your body and mind. Volunteering can provide a healthy boost to your self-confidence, self-esteem and life satisfaction,” said Kerry Grace Heckle, executive director of corporate and community relations at UNC Health.

Carolina Community Garden Program Manager Claire Lorch has taken great care to create a masks-on experience for volunteers who join a workday at the Wilson Street garden. “More so than ever we realize how valuable this resource is for people right now, not only for our recipients but for our volunteers. People are just so grateful to be able to do this,” Lorch said. “People seem to be really pretty cautious, I would say, overall. Everyone wants to keep coming, so they follow the rules.”

Volunteers work in two-hour shifts and support the garden in completing a variety of tasks including assisting with composting and preparing the soil for spring. Want to get your own hands dirty? Sign up to volunteer with the Carolina Community Garden or with Edible Campus UNC.

There’s no shortage of ideas for how to stay positive during this challenging time. We hope these examples inspire you to reach out to a colleague or spend some time outdoors, so we emerge from this pandemic with healthy bodies and stronger bonds.