As 2020 continues and the pandemic marches on, we’re all doing what we can to maintain a sense of normalcy despite how much everything has changed. It’s been months now since most of us were told to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease and, although restrictions have loosened, we are still practicing social distancing and most scheduled events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Mental health professionals have become concerned about our psychiatric condition as a society and warn that numerous major stressors “undoubtedly will contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness associated with Covid-19.” What can we do to ward off emotional distress and depression? Let’s take a look at what the experts say.
Historical Data Quarantine Measures
Obviously these are completely unprecedented times so there isn’t a whole lot of information to use in comparison but there have been quarantines in the recent past that researchers have studied.
From 2002 to 2004 more than 15000 people living in Toronto agreed to a voluntary quarantine after being exposed to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a contagious respiratory disease not unlike COVID.
For 10 days these volunteers stayed in their homes, wore face masks when in the company of their family members and refrained from seeing outside visitors. Research conducted after the quarantine found that those studies experienced a range of both immediate and short term psychological ramifications.
Every one of the subjects expressed feelings of isolation resulting from the lack of social contact with others and many experienced increased feelings of anxiety and isolation because of the precautions taken. After quarantine a number of the participants reported longer lasting repercussions with around 1 in 4 showing signs of PTSD and depression.
Although these volunteers were experiencing conditions separate from those of the general population, unlike what’s happening in 2020, they exhibited mental health issues after only ten days! Compare that to the months we have all been quarantining and social distancing.
Possible Mental Health Effect of Quarantines
The Toronto-based research was included in a 2019 report in The Lancet which reviewed past studies to forecast how COVID-19 may impact those in quarantine today. The article uncovered the findings that psychological distress is common both during and after periods of quarantine. It isn’t uncommon for People to suffer from:
- Depressive symptoms
- Emotional disturbance
- Emotional exhaustion
- Post-traumatic stress symptoms
Another common result of quarantine is substance abuse and/or alcohol dependency. Loneliness and isolation often trigger substance issues, leading to a troubling cycle.
Social Distancing is Affecting the Minds of Millions
And it’s not just quarantine that is causing problems. Even social distancing, our new “normal”, is having a negative impact on people’s psyche. Humans are naturally social creatures and need interaction with people to flourish. Staying apart from others means individuals are spending a great deal of time alone or, in some cases, sharing close quarters in stressful situations with only family.
A recent Kaiser Permanente Family Foundation Health Tracking poll found that 56% of Americans were experiencing pandemic-related worry or stress and suffered at least one negative mental health consequence as a result. The aforementioned alcohol abuse, trouble sleeping and eating issues all topped the list. Some reported that those issues increased in severity as time has progressed.
Increased Stress and Sadness are Common
Over 40 million Americans experience anxiety each year making it the most common mental health diagnosis. Half of these individuals will also suffer from depression…and that’s without a pandemic. The isolation we feel at present could easily make these issues even worse.
In the U.S. alone, some 40 million people experience anxiety each year and over 16 million suffer from depression. Half the people that suffer from depression will also experience feelings of anxiety. Social distancing could make symptoms even worse.
Michigan Medicine Professor, Psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Riba says, “This pandemic has set up a perfect storm of people having stress and anxiety, and not having the usual ways to talk and connect with people about it. We can’t go for coffee or chat at the office water cooler about what we’re feeling, and that can make people feel worse than they were already.”
And the “unknown” is also wreaking havoc on our psyche. University of Southern California researcher Lawrence Palinkas studies psychosocial adaptation to extreme environments. He has concluded that, “(I)f you have a very well defined period of time…isolated people do pretty well up until the halfway point. Then they experience a letdown.” And what about when the isolation doesn’t have a definite end in sight? “(W)hen you’re not certain how long you’ll be asked to maintain social distance, that produces anxiety as well.”
How the Current Pandemic Is Affecting Our Mental Health
This pandemic has had an effect on every aspect of our day to day lives, most of it negative, and as the months march on people have become more aware of the toll it’s taking on their psychological condition. According to a Gallup poll published in April, a majority of Americans state that when comparing physical, mental and financial health, COVID-19 is harming their mental health most of all.
It’s true that, because of Zoom all of our other technological methods of communication, we are more “in touch” than ever and most recognize that fact. It’s also true, though, that technology can’t take the place of actual face to face interaction. While some people are doing well, others, especially those aged 18-44 who traditionally socialize more, aren’t exactly thriving.
If the pandemic is taking a toll on your mental health, there are several proactive things you can do to lessen the unpleasant feelings you’re experiencing.
Maintaining a Balanced State of Mind During Social Distancing
- Keep in Contact with Loved Ones: Mental health professionals agree that maintaining relationships with people you love and trust is one of the most sure-fire ways to avoid anxiety, loneliness and depression. Phone calls and texts, the old standbys, are great ways to keep in touch but it’s also a good idea to have “face to face” interaction through Zoom or FaceTime. Seeing the people you care about matters!
- Try Virtual Therapy: Therapy is always a good idea when in crisis. If you think that it would be too difficult to find a new therapist because of COVID you’d be mistaken. Many therapists are now offering virtual sessions and there are a variety of online resources for anyone in need of affordable therapy. Talking helps, especially now. Is therapy not your “thing”? Millions are sharing their feelings online, and examining how others are handling the crisis could very well help. Reach out, however you can.
- Maintain a Daily Routine: Sticking to a daily schedule can help quite a bit during this turbulent time. Setting the alarm, getting up and showering and actually getting dressed in new clothes signals the brain that your day has begun. If you’re working, set up your “office” and have a schedule laid out the night before. Also, remember to take scheduled breaks throughout the day, just like you would if you were in an office. If you’re not working, still stick to a pre-planned schedule to create a sense of normalcy.
- Limit Social Media Time: It was easy to waste hours on Facebook and Instagram even on a regular, pre-pandemic day. Now that we have so much time on our hands it’s become even easier. Step away from the screen! Mindless scrolling can make us more depressed and lonely so do your best to limit social media breaks.
- Keep Your Mind Busy: Reading a book or magazine, painting, cooking and meditating are all activities that we don’t think about doing for pleasure most days. The majority of people just don’t have the time. Now, though, distracting ourselves with tasks that don’t involve electronics is key. Doing a puzzle or playing a game can stop us from overthinking and creating negative thoughts.
- Exercise on the Regular!: Exercise is one of the very best things you can do to maintain your mental health. Simply getting outside for a leisurely walk can turn things around. Physical movement is an important part of staying healthy so, whatever you do, don’t forget that psychological wellness is directly related to physical wellness. If your old routine involved a gym setting, don’t let social distancing put an end to your workouts. Get out and move.
The most important thing to remember? You are not alone! Everyone in the World has been impacted by this unprecedented crisis so knowing that we are all in this together is the first step to maintaining a sense of comfort and calm.
What do you find comforting in the “time of corona”?