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Natural Awakenings Rhode Island

Maintaining Health Through Relationships

Sep 30, 2020 12:24PM ● By Wendy Fachon

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted people’s normal approaches to building and maintaining relationships at a time when relationships are more vital to survival than ever. Kevin Baill, M.D., psychiatrist and medical director of outpatient services at Butler Hospital, in Providence, explains, “We’re going through an abnormally difficult time, and we need to take extra time to attend to our personal health, and that includes maintaining the vitality and health of the connections we have with others.” 

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, reveals that if people had to choose one variable that most influences their health, it would be relationships. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and director of the study, concluded that taking care of one’s personal relationships is indeed a critical form of self-care. 

People that are deeply connected to their family, friends, co-workers and certain members of their local community lead healthier, happier and longer lives. Plus, it is not a matter of the number of relationships, but rather it is about the quality of the relationships and the levels of trust and intimacy. It is about building codependent bonds, being able to count on others and being able to be counted on by others.    

Pandemic restrictions, such as physical distancing, indoor isolation, mask-wearing and group gathering limitations, which have been imposed for churches, weddings, clubs and bars, have challenged long-established forms of social bonding. Given the current situation, it is socially unacceptable to touch and shake hands. Physical contact is taboo. Engagement in team sports with any type of contact has been suspended.

Exercise, however, is an important aspect of self-care. Jogging is safe, walking has numerous health benefits, and outdoors is one of the healthiest places to spend time these days. Masks depend on the setting. Is one walking a crowded street in Newport or along a secluded beach? Baill says, “We need to be more creative and figure out new ways to spend meaningful time together.” While he cites the importance of close proximity, shared experiences, meaningful conversations, eye-to eye contact, facial expression and related biochemical signaling factors that promote the development of supportive relationships, he also recommends prudence. Spending time outdoors with others has a much lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors. Fresh air and more space between people minimizes the risk. This winter, it will be more important than ever to have a warm coat and gloves, so that we can get out and spend time with friends.

Baill describes the web of human relationships in terms of rings. There is the intimate ring of five, typically containing people that live together. There is the 15-ring of friends, people that live elsewhere, yet are close enough to share dreams, good news and troubles. Beyond that is the 150-ring of acquaintances, consisting of coworkers, customers, doctors and others trusted for necessary purposes.

Baill points out that in-person interactions are going to be far more effective than online interactions for developing healthy relationships. People that actually do meaningful things together are going to have better relationships. “The people most impacted by the pandemic are adolescents and the elderly,” says Baill. “During the age of adolescence, your friends are the ladder to your development,” he explains. Kids need more experience and bonding and less time in front of a screen. Many parents are navigating this challenge by creating roving pods that meet daily to walk dogs, ride scooters and explore what is happening around their neighborhood.

As for the elderly, especially those in assisted living situations, the stimulus of being with others is what keeps them going. When visiting hours are restricted, family Facetiming can make all the difference in their world. “This won’t last forever,” says Baill. “Building and maintaining healthy relationships in the time of a pandemic is not exactly elegant and graceful. We are being challenged and changed, and the best we can do for our children is to not be cavalier about the situation and to model responsibility.”


Kevin Baill, M.D., is Chief of Addiction Services and Medical Director of Outpatient Services at Butler Hospital, 345 Blackstone Blvd, Providence.

Wendy Fachon is a regular contributor of Natural Awakenings. Connect at [email protected]