Maintaining Mental Health while Social Distancing during the COVID-19 Pandemic
How can social distancing affect mental health?
Human beings are social animals. Naturally, isolation from others could have negative side effects, some involving mental health. Everyone will react differently to the stress of maintaining social distance in response to the COVID-19 crisis; however typical reactions include:
- Decreased social interaction and increased loneliness
- Irregular daily schedule and limited motivation
- Inability to focus and lack of concentration
- Either increased or decreased appetite
- Impaired sleep, including both insomnia and hypersomnia, and fatigue/exhaustion
- Increased feelings of:
- sadness and depression
- uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and nervousness
- anger, irritability, and frustration
- boredom and numbness
- Excessive desire to use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
There are many factors that increase the likelihood that negative psychological consequences will occur in response to being quarantined. In a review of all studies examining the psychological effects of quarantine, Brooks et al. (2020) found evidence that the following factors increased the probability that negative psychological effects will occur:
- Longer duration of quarantine
- Separation from loved ones
- Fears of becoming infected yourself or infecting others
- Experiencing frustration or boredom
- Inadequate food, water, or other supplies
- Not having access to adequate information
- Financial strains or job loss
- Experiencing stigma (against healthcare workers, foreign citizens, and infected or isolated persons)
Although some of these factors are not under one's control and life may be affected
in unpredictable ways, there are things one can do to offset feelings of distress.
What can I do?
Maintain a Routine
- Maintain your usual sleep/wake schedule and engage in your normal morning routine (e.g., shower, coffee, meditate, exercise)
- Limit time spent in bed to only what is necessary to obtain a restful night’s sleep (see CCI’s Sleep Hygiene information sheet)
- Get dressed for the day – change into clothes that you would normally wear to work, or at least change out of your pajamas
- If working from home, take breaks for lunch and dinner
- If working from home, create a clear, distraction-free place to conduct work, which is separate from where you conduct other activities
- Make a schedule or list of tasks to complete each day (e.g., work tasks, bills, chores, etc.)
- Make a weekly schedule of tasks and try to keep your weekday and weekend routines separate
- If you have children, have them follow a regular routine as well, including engagement
in educational activities assigned by remote teachers and don't forget time for
Take Care of Yourself
- Eat healthy and nutritious foods
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly - you can still go outdoors to take walks or ride bicycles; just remember to wear face protection if you are around others
- Get enough sleep and rest
- Engage in daily personal hygiene practice
- Take breaks throughout the day
Engage in Goal-Directed Behavior
- Completion of stated goals has dramatic positive effects on both mood and self-esteem. To overcome any negative effects associated with periods of isolation, it is important to continue to have and pursue daily goals, even if they are relatively simple ones. A key point is to make your goals achievable and it does not hurt to write them down so you can check them off when you complete them. Here are some examples of achievable daily goals:
- For those working from home, completion of a work assignment
- For those enrolled in a class, attending the class and creating a good set of notes from the online delivery of content
- For those with writing projects, completion of a specified number of pages
- For parents who are now home school teachers, helping a child complete an assigned unit
- For those doing crafts, completion of a specified number of steps toward completion
- Cooking and serving a meal to your family
- Walking a specified distance around the neighborhood
Communication: Reach Out!
- Social distancing does not have to equal social isolation. Be sure to stay connected to others! Social distancing leads to decreased face to face interaction; however there are plenty of alternative virtual ways to stay in touch with family, friends, and co-workers, including FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, texting, or using the phone.
- Let others know when you need additional social support and seek help when needed. Social communication is a wonderful buffer against stress.
- Remember that this is an international crisis and that we are all in this together.
Write it Down
- Start a journal or online blog chronicling your daily experiences during this period of social distancing. For example, what activities did you do, what did you eat, how were you feeling? You can write about your own experiences, those of your friends and loved ones, or even society as a whole. You might even consider mentioning your thoughts and experiences surrounding social distancing, the economy, your hometown, isolation, cancellation of public events, taking online classes, resource hoarding, social solidarity, etc.
Don’t Become a Hermit!
- While the CDC recommends maintaining social distance, this does not mean that you cannot leave your home or apartment at all. For example, you can still spend time outside! Go for a walk or jog with a friend while maintaining a 6 ft distance, read a book on your porch or patio, take your dog for a stroll, or tend to your outdoor garden.
Find Activities You Enjoy
- Behavioral activation is a wonderful way to combat feelings of depression or anxiety that can arise when social distancing disrupts our routines, schedules, and social lives. While you may not be able to engage in some of your favorite social activities such as dining out at a restaurant with friends, in-store shopping/browsing, or attending concerts, there are other activities and “simple pleasures” that you can enjoy while maintaining social distance including:
- Painting or sketching
- Reading a book
- Repairing things around the house
- Taking a bath or shower
- Organizing your wardrobe or doing some other spring cleaning
- Baking or cooking
- Going for a walk alone, with others respecting social distance, or with a pet
- Exercising at home or outdoors
- Watching movies or TV shows
- Playing board games, card games (Solitaire!), or building puzzles
- Listening to podcasts or watching TED talks
- Listening to music
- Praying/engaging in worship
- Journaling or blogging
- Taking an online class
- Playing a musical instrument
- Going for a bike or car ride
- Looking through old photos
- Doing arts/crafts (e.g., knitting, scrap booking)
- Practice meditation or learn a new relaxation strategy
- Playing with your children or your pets
Monitor Your Feelings and Keep Your Mind Grounded
- The psychological effects of social distancing that you experience may change over time depending on a number of factors including threat status, regional closures, etc. Pay attention to the ways in which your feelings may change day to day and week to week. When feelings become overwhelming, feel free to employ some of the tried-and-tested strategies for regulating emotions on the Helpful Resources page (see link below).
- Anxiety can cause racing thoughts that make us feel physically and mentally out of control. Mental Health America recommends using your 5 senses to mentally “ground” yourself in the present moment. For example:
- I see _______ (I see the clouds)
- I hear_______( I hear music)
- I smell _______ (I smell my coffee)
- I taste _______ (I taste my banana)
- I feel ________ (I feel my legs touching the chair)
Limit Media Exposure
- Though it is obviously important to stay informed during this time, try to limit media exposure to only a few trusted sources and avoid reading social media posts that lead to increased feelings of fear and anxiety, and may be inaccurate. In other words, use social media wisely. Repeated exposure to media can increase feelings of anxiety, thus choose one time each day that you devote to digesting news updates and videos. Too much exposure can lead to increased anxiety, which can in turn lead to negative health protective behaviors such as hoarding of resources, use of inappropriate or untested drugs to self-medicate against the virus, and more (Garfin et al., 2020).
Offer to Help
- Offer to help others by donating money to first responders, donating personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals, or checking in on vulnerable friends and family member.
Other Important Reminders
- The decision to remain physically distant from others during this time is an altruistic behavior that protects not only yourself but the people in your community who may be at an increased risk of infection (e.g., the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.)
- As our social situations have changed very rapidly, it is important to be compassionate with ourselves and with one another. Remember we are all in the same boat!
This is a work in progress and will be updated as new information becomes available. Please check back periodically to view new content.