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

by Stephanie Hauer

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