Space and COVID-19

Welcome to my new office!

I live with two roommates, one of whom is also working from home, and the confidentiality requirements for our work means that I am relegated to my bedroom. My queen size bed, which takes up the majority of my room, serves as my desk, my chair (or lounging space, as sitting without back support can be uncomfortable after awhile), and, well, my bed where I sleep.

COVID-19 has condensed our relationship with space in drastic ways.

Many of us have expansive spaces to work. Our office spaces contain at minimum seating arrangements and desks, open floor plans, or the homes of our clients (for those who do in-home therapy). For most of us, our office spaces are physically separate from our homes; I live in Dorchester and work in Quincy, for instance. Stay-at-home orders have limited our ability create space between work and home, and, in a lot of cases, have reduced the square footage by which we can spend most of our days. There will be future blog posts about how the prolonged reduction of space impacts couple relationships. (Preview: The results are not great.)

Our Zoom and Doxy screens condense the space through which we observe the world. When sitting still, our eyes and corrective lenses can clearly see things at least 20 feet in front of us, with a maximum distance of up to 3 miles. The radius of our line of vision is approximately 10 feet, which means that our vision can capture thousands of square feet at a time. With Zoom, we can only see about 50 square feet of space, depending on how far back our clients sit. We lose depth perception. We lose visual context cues, which disables us from catching a range of non-verbal movements, like the tapping of a foot, or the way that a person walks to their seat. We who are visually-abled lose important information that helps us process the world.

Our masks significantly reduce our personal space. Oxygen becomes harder to take in; I've had multiple clients describe the physiological effects of wearing masks as claustrophobic. The absence of space between our mouths and the air surrounding us makes our voices sound like we're drowning, which spikes enormous anxiety for those who fear being misunderstood, myself included.

The rhetoric of the COVID-19 disease also creates a reduction of personal space. We don't have longitudinal data about COVID-19 the way that we do the flu, or the rhinitis that I can daily manage with allergy medication. Every day we get new information about the disease, which gets shared on various media streams with tones ranging from helpful to frenzied. One day, overcoming COVID-19 means you're immune from it; the next day it doesn't. One day, the virus seems fairly stable; the next day, there's information about new strains of the virus.

This is the reality of science; variables, from the evolvability of the virus to the privilege that one has to social distance, impact the experiment, and we're still at the stage of controlling the variables. For the sake of this conversation, even if we don't have symptoms, we cannot create personal space from the worldwide science experiment that is COVID-19, regardless of how much we distance ourselves from social and visual media.

Nothing better describes the warped relationship with space than the dialectical phrase "social distancing". On the one hand, six feet apart seems to suggest that you have plenty of space. Six feet is a slightly above-average wingspan. It's helpful information that molecules from water droplets can travel approximately six feet. However, the rhetoric around COVID-19 has created a Schrodinger's Effect--you cannot tell who has the virus and who doesn't, so you have to assume that everyone has the virus, as displayed by the wearing of a mask.

Therefore, all outsiders are seen as threats, a frightening message further complicated by our country's terrible history with othering people. When something or someone is seen as a threat, our bodies start to constrict. Some of us physically shrink from the space that we take up, our shoulders and hips turning inward. All of us experience the constriction of blood vessels and the reduction of oxygen intake. These physiological symptoms create a positive feedback loop of anxiety, where our bodies and minds reinforce the communal sense of tension and fear. The six feet of separation standard, combined with an increased amount of anxiety, has led to a significant decrease of touch for many people, especially for folks who live in isolation, which tends to reinforce physiological symptoms of anxiety.

As COVID-19 and social distancing evolve, pay attention to the ways that your body and relationships are impacted by our new relationships with space.

Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT, CST, the Executive Director of NEAFAST, is working with couples and families through teletherapy for the foreseeable future.

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