We as humans are decidedly social creatures, and as such, it is not difficult to see how the intentional isolation asked of us during this time can affect our mental health and lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and even anger.
On top of this, the uncertainty surrounding the virus and the effect it will have on our daily routines, loved ones, and society as a whole can add additional layers of stress. When living under social isolation conditions, it is important to be mindful of our reactions and employ the appropriate skills in order to have more effective distress tolerance.
What is Social Distancing?
We have been inundated with the phrase, “social distancing” lately on social media and in the news, but we thought we’d explore what exactly “social distancing” means, and why it’s important to combat the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Social distancing is a measure taken to prevent people from inadvertently spreading a disease throughout the community and is meant to curb the disease’s exponential growth. The logic stands on the idea that if one person has COVID-19 and they go to the local hardware store for example, everyone in proximity of them at that store is at risk of infection. In this example, one person, even if they are asymptomatic, could end up infecting one hundred people, and those one hundred people go on to infect even more people, increasing the amount of cases exponentially.
However, if the infected individual simply stayed home, they stop the virus from spreading to others in their community. If everyone in a community follows suit, epidemiologists say the virus could be halted completely. This is why institutions with high levels of social contact (think: churches, schools, sporting events, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.) have temporarily closed.
As difficult as it may be to stay home for extended periods of time, let’s not forget the value and importance of doing so. It may sound counterintuitive, but showing up for your community by staying home during this pandemic is the most effective way to avoid more cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
What to Expect
As Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal.” The ancient Greeks knew what we are reminded of today—we crave social interaction to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This virus and the social distancing requirements are putting a pause to our normal social interaction, and therefore we may experience some powerful emotions.
Here are some normal thoughts and feelings you may experience during this time of social isolation:
– Anxiety, Fear, or Worry
Many people are anxious or worried about their health or the health of their loved ones during this time. They are avoiding seeing their family members, especially if they are older, in order to avoid spreading the virus. Anxiety or fear can also present as barriers to doing what we must do in order to get through this crisis. For example, we may experience fear when confronted with having to leave our homes to buy groceries or other essential items. It may feel unnerving to know that other people could be potential vessels for the virus.
The future may feel uncertain at the moment and uncertainty often is accompanied by anxiety. Health officials do not entirely know how long this will last or how long we will have to follow social distancing. There is uncertainty around what might happen to our loved ones, jobs, the industries in which we work, and even how the economy in general will be impacted.
– Loneliness or Depression
Many of us may be cut off from the ones we love, especially those of us who live alone. It’s only natural to feel a sense of isolation or loneliness during these times. Despite safe alternatives such as speaking over the phone or video chatting with our friends and family, it still may not feel as fulfilling as being in the same room with someone. This loneliness can push us further into ourselves and could make us sleep longer, communicate less with others, and display other symptoms of depression.
Some people might feel anger toward those who are not taking the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Washington State, for instance, where the virus has had a severe impact, it might have felt exasperating to see news footage of individuals on spring break vacations behaving in a way that could be perceived as negligent. It is also normative to feel angry when goals are blocked or needs cannot be met. Missing out on upcoming “rights of passage” like graduations and vacations or not finding toilet paper at the supermarket may be accompanied by anger.
Of course, the most common side effect of social isolation is the boredom associated with the inescapable monotony of daily life indoors. While boredom may not be experienced as intensely as other emotions on this list, boredom can lead to other problematic behaviors and may exasperate anxiety and depression.
Mental Health & Coping
When experiencing these emotions related to social isolation, skills from Dialectical Behavior Therapy are effective strategies coping with distress and achieving a more positive outlook, even when things may look grim.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them”
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) promotes the use of mindfulness during times of high stress. Mindfulness encourages us to be present in our lives in a particular kind of way – nonjudgmentally, effectively and intentionally. Through mindfulness practice we learn to be less reactive and more accepting of reality as it is. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot control whether we feel anxious, fearful, or angry. Nor can we control the virus, or what effect it will have on society at large. We can, however, work towards radically accept our current situation replete with the numerous unknowns and painful emotions. This is where mindfulness comes into play: just noticing our emotions as they arise and fall without judgment or demands that they go away.
After acceptance, we can then decide what action to take to try to improve our situation. Staying educated about the pandemic is important, although it is also necessary to take breaks from news coverage. Giving our bodies proper exercise is also important; now may be the perfect time to start a stretching or yoga routine. Keep in contact with those you love—talk over the phone, video chat, or even have a Netflix party!
The important thing to remember is that you are in the driver’s seat. You can’t control what other drivers will do on the road. You can’t control if it rains or if the sun shines. But ultimately, you decide what to do with your vehicle. This takes time to perfect, but we are here to help you develop the skills to manage your mental health in positive ways.