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Should you create a COVID-19 'winter bubble'? Experts weigh in

Creating a coronavirus "bubble" can have mental health benefits, but make sure you're taking the necessary steps to do it safely.

While COVID-19 vaccines offer hope for the eventual end of the pandemic, public health experts are still asking people to follow restrictions: The United States is still grappling with record numbers of cases and hospitalizations from the virus, and the best way to stay safe while slowing the spread of the disease is to stay home and social distance as much as possible.

However, mental health experts warn that constant isolation from friends and family can be bad for your mental health, leading some people to form pods or bubbles, small groups that follow tight restrictions designed to allow for socialization while still keeping group members safe.

However, as cases rise, it's important to make sure that your bubble is safe. TODAY Health spoke to several experts to make sure that your bubble is as effective as possible.

How big can your bubble be?

If you do form a bubble this winter, keep it small: Experts recommend only including a few people, since that will make it easiest to limit exposures.

Some advise not forming a bubble at all, especially as the pandemic continues to surge across the country.

"My blunt answer would be that the best social bubble to have is your own bubble," said Barun Mathema, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "Given what's happening with the current trajectory of the pandemic, I don't think we've plateaued yet. We're likely to see even higher numbers ... We shouldn't be doing anything without wearing masks and distancing, and should be very, very careful about expanding social bubbles."

Who should be included?

If you do decide to form a bubble, make sure that you are with people who can reasonably limit their exposures: While schools and workplaces can be safe, they can open the door for exposures. If kids are included in the bubble, try to make sure that they attend the same school classroom or are virtually learning.

"It requires examining every part of your life and making sure that it all kind of lines up for the same exposure," said Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

It's also important to make sure that you can comfortably speak to the people in your bubble about potential restrictions.

"If you're going to do a pod, the best way to do it is to be really clear about what to expect from each other's behavior, and it has to be people who you can ask to follow the guidelines that you set out, and where you're going to respect what they expect, and what they want from you in order to keep them safe," said Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California. "...How many people in your life can you ask that? How many people do you have that relationship with? For most people, it's not many."

Groups that are more susceptible to having severe reactions to COVID-19, including senior citizens and immunocompromised populations, should not be included in bubbles. Those who live with high-risk individuals should also be careful about participating in a bubble.

"A really common sort of cognitive fallacy that I've seen has been people assuming that other people they know are at lower risk than people who they don't know, and that's just wrong," Liu explained. "What I've been seeing in the hospital is that people who are middle-aged and older are getting sick, even if they're being cautious, often from younger household members who are going out and having contact with other people."

What are the mental health benefits to a bubble?

Having social interactions with others has multiple benefits, according to Yamalis Diaz, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in New York.

"When you spend time with the people you enjoy spending time with, you're going to feel a bit of a dopamine hit," said Diaz. "If you've been kind of slugging along working from home or doing virtual learning and you're staying indoors, you're just not doing some of the same pleasant activities that you're used to. When you suddenly get together with people you feel that dopamine rush, you feel good, and the feel-good hormones will kick in."

In addition to neurological changes, Diaz said that seeing friends can help people cope with stressors.

"You have an opportunity to talk through stressors, and you have an opportunity for fun and enjoyment that actually distracts you from the things that are feeling stressful," Diaz explained. "It's almost like it gives you a little bit of a feel-good dose, if you will, that can carry you through (the situation)."

How can you make your bubble successful?

For a bubble to be successful, its members need to be on the same page about restrictions and capable of having tough conversations with each other if things come up.

Diaz said the first step to making a bubble successful is making sure the people in the bubble have similar interests and can "connect around things that bring you joy and pleasure."

"If you have a small group that you're going to be working with or hanging out with, it's probably going to be organized around shared interests, things people in the pod enjoy, so you're more likely to get your social needs met," she said.

Once you've found the people for your pod, start by having "open" and "respectful" conversations about the restrictions you'd like to operate within.

"Everybody is coming to this situation with their own set of expectations and things they're struggling with," said Diaz. "What I've seen not work is when people go into the conversation with a list of demands and expectations, and that can often lead to some conflict, because it's been approached as 'This is what you need to do,' and a lot of times people will become a little defensive, and then suddenly you're in a little bit of a conflict."

"Go to the other people in the pod and say, '(Since) we're sort of hunkering down for the last bit of this, how does everybody want to handle the next few months?'" Diaz continued. "That's an open question, inviting discussion and conversation ... And from there, wherever you identify some potential differences, you can discuss those openly and respectfully."