Can We Please Not Call It Social Distancing Anymore?

April 8, 2020 Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

The term "social distancing" has become part of our culture's mainstream lexicon over the past few months, but for the sake of those in eating disorder (ED) recovery—or any mental health issue, for that matter—can we please not call it social distancing anymore? The idea of creating barriers socially between ourselves and other people can exacerbate the sense of isolation or disconnection that many individuals who battle eating disorders are already too familiar with. In fact, experts within the field of public health agree the phrase is harmful and advocate that it be known as "physical distancing" instead.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has chosen to replace "social" with "physical" in its official statements as an initiative to reinforce camaraderie and unification in the midst of this global pandemic. At a press conference last month on March 20th, a WHO epidemiologist, Maria Van Kerkhove, confirmed that, while it's "absolutely essential" to maintain a physical distance from each other to reduce the viral contagion, ". . . it doesn't mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones."

She also noted that just because we are unable to share actual space with our family or friends right now, our mental health still depends on consistent and open lines of communication. 

During a time when human touch is not as accessible, and all of us have suffered the loss of community to some extent, it's imperative to be mindful of how we talk about this or the specific words we use—so as not to cause further alienation. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, my support network has been a monumental conduit for healing, and it crushes me to be separated from those relationships. But I still fight to remain connected with the people I love since these bonds are crucial to wellbeing. So for all those in ED recovery, can we please not call it social distancing anymore?   

Why Social Distancing Is Problematic in ED Recovery 

Research has found that rates of loneliness are acutely high in those who suffer from eating disorders due to numbness, insecurity, withdrawal, shame, depression, anxiety, and similar emotions that can drive a wedge in relationships.2 This isolation can also be a result of harmful interactions in the past and fear of judgment—or even worse, rejection—from other people who don't understand the illness. In the darkest periods of my own eating disorder, I chose to avoid family and claimed I did not need any friends, but the loneliness was almost as harrowing as the anorexia itself.

Disconnection kept me embroiled in the secrets on which my eating disorder thrived, but when I crashed to rock bottom, avoidance was no longer an option—I leaned into human contact, and it saved my life. I made the decision to recover because of the accountability, encouragement, affirmation, and unconditional love of those who rallied to support me. Connection heals, restores, and strengthens, just as isolation burdens and overwhelms. This is why the term social distancing is problematic—it communicates a sense of utter aloneness, severance, and detachment.   

Physical Distancing Is More Helpful than Social Distancing 

As a culture, we have a unique opportunity to be unified and connected with one another as the effects of this pandemic still remain uncertain. We might not be able to literally squeeze hands or link arms, but we can figuratively reach out to embrace those around us with simple acts of kindness and intentionality. This includes being sensitive to how our words can impact the emotional and mental health of people in our communities. Physical distancing is required to contain the spread of COVID-19—I agree with that wholeheartedly—but can we please not call it social distancing anymore?  


  1. World Health Organization, "COVID-19 Press Conference." March 20, 2020.
  2. Peaslee Levine, M., "Loneliness and Eating Disorders." The Journal of Psychology, January 2012.

APA Reference
Schurrer, M. (2020, April 8). Can We Please Not Call It Social Distancing Anymore?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

Connect with Mary-Elizabeth on Facebook, Instagram and her personal blog.

Leave a reply