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The Dangers of Social Distancing: How the COVID-19 Crisis Can Contribute to a Mental Health Crisis

Social distancing is vitally important, and the responsible practice of its principles saves lives. For many of us, it’s a choice we’re willing to make to protect others. Holding that knowledge, however, doesn’t change the fact that social distancing — especially for those who are living alone—is hard. For people who are neurotypical, extended isolation can be draining. For people who already have some kind of mental illness or disability, extended isolation can exacerbate present symptoms or cause symptoms that haven’t appeared for a while to resurface. Social distancing is still one of the best practices in the face of the virus, and we don’t know how long it will remain in place. As such, it’s important to examine the impact that isolation can have and to take steps to mitigate the potential negative impact.

There are three main terms used to describe the limitation of contact due to coronavirus. Social distancing refers to the practices of maintaining a six-foot distance between you and people outside your household and avoiding gatherings of people or crowded areas. Quarantine refers to avoiding social contact when you have been exposed and you’re waiting to see if you develop symptoms. Isolation refers to total and complete sequestration when you are sick with COVID-19, and your only contact with the outside world is medical treatment. Isolation is the strictest level, and it comes with the highest risk to mental health, but even social distancing can have a negative impact, especially when it is applied long-term. In July, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that “a majority of adults (53%)… say that stress and worry related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.”

There are a lot of factors that make social distancing hard, including “a drop in meaningful activities, sensory stimuli and social engagement; financial strain from being unable to work; and a lack of access to typical coping strategies such as going to the gym or attending religious services.” In addition to these changes to one’s routine, there’s the loneliness. Experts have shown that social connection contributes to overall health. Physical touch, like hugging or holding hands, can even reduce symptoms of various conditions, such as elevated blood pressure or physical pain.3 And prolonged loneliness and isolation can contribute to “a weakened immune system response, higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and a shorter life span.” Between fears of the virus itself and concerns about the impacts it can have on health and quality of life, it feels like a perfect storm. These circumstances are apt to create signs of anxiety and depression, regardless of previous mental-health history.

And if you do have a prior history of mental illness? These same factors are likely to exacerbate it. As one psychologist notes, “Psychological studies show that social isolation can trigger or intensify depression. Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations exacerbates anxiety and related disorders. And lack of structure and everyday human interactions can significantly set back patients who are battling addictions or psychoses.” And for people with contamination OCD—a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that focuses specifically on germs and illnesses—it can feel like everywhere they turn is a new trigger. Wendy Sparrow shared her experiences of navigating the pandemic with OCD: “Having OCD in a world that is suddenly validating all you’ve worried about for decades is numbing in my case. I thought I wanted this acknowledgment that the world is a hostile, unclean place to justify the way I’ve lived my life. But now that it’s here, it’s almost bewildering.”

Even more soberingly, “secondary consequences of social distancing may increase the risk of suicide.” Those same factors that can contribute to feelings of anxiety—potential for illness, uncertainty and disruption, and inability to access coping mechanisms and routines—can also contribute to suicide rates. America has already seen a rise in suicide-related deaths in the past two decades, so the additional stressors of a pandemic are especially concerning.

Each and every human life is valuable and deserves protection. But different people have different circumstances, so protection can take on different forms. We need to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but we also need to protect our mental health. No one is exempt from or immune to these risks. How do we balance these needs?

Fortunately, there are strategies and coping skills that can help mitigate some of these risks, for yourself and for others.

1. Limit your news consumption

It’s important to stay updated so that you can make the most informed decisions about your health and the health of those around you. But spending too much time taking in information can cause the heavy emotions to linger. Make sure that the information you seek is from reputable sources, and consider setting concrete time limits on your daily consumption.

2. Try to stick to a routine

When you’re in isolation, sometimes time can feel slippery, and the days can feel muddy. Setting a routine can help give each day a sense of purpose. It can also help ensure that you include healthy activities in your day, whether that’s cooking a nutritious meal, exercising, engaging with your creativity through a hobby, or relaxing through your favorite activities.

3. Keep connected

While you have to remain physically apart from many people, that doesn’t mean you can’t connect in other ways. We live in an age of unprecedented virtual capabilities; many of us have access to a host of different virtual connection options, from text messages to video calls. Using these to converse with your friends and loved ones can be hugely helpful in warding off the loneliness that’s such a prominent risk of social distancing.

4. Use psychology techniques

There are plenty of coping strategies and techniques available to help with feelings of anxiety, depression, or anything else that could trouble you. Activities such as meditative breathing, gratitude journaling, and/or cognitive exercises can be used to work through the complex emotions that this situation generates. There are apps, articles, and workbooks available online. Everyone is unique, so you might have to try a few different techniques before you find one that fits you, but they can be really effective.

5. Try to see the good

Taking the time to highlight the positive elements of your circumstances is a common and effective technique to combat anxiety. It’s refreshing to infuse some positivity into your day, and it can combat some of the doom-and-gloom feelings that accomodate depression. And focusing on the things that you can control, rather than constantly thinking about things outside of your control, can help you feel empowered.

6. Be kind (to yourself and to others)

We’re living through a pandemic. It’s normal to experience all sorts of different emotions in response to that, and you shouldn’t hold yourself to your normal standards of productivity. If you’re using your extra time at home to be productive to take your mind off things, great! And if you’re using your extra time at home to just rest because that’s all you can handle, that’s also great! Your emotions are valid, and so are those of other people. With so much going on in the world, it’s important to be patient and kind as much as possible.

7. Share resources

There are a number of resources for people who are struggling with social distancing. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a list of numerous resources and tips for people in need.

When it comes to mental health, it’s not all bad news. In March, graduate students from the University of Washington initiated a study tracking the mental health of 500 people. Every day, the participants logged information about their mental health and wellbeing and social connections. The data showed a variety of symptoms, like intrusive thoughts, but over time, those symptoms decreased. Adam Kuczynski, the leader of the study, said the data told “a story of resilience and adaptation.” Despite it all, we’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through it together.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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