How to Make Sure Social Distancing and Self-Isolation Don’t Hurt Your Mental Health

October 28, 2020

A week ago, while we were discussing how to effectively wash our hands, something seemingly incomprehensible was happening in America. Cities are on lockdown. Bars and restaurants have been closed for in-house dining. Movie theaters are closed. Airlines are seeing huge drops in travel. Sports leagues have cancelled their seasons. Weddings are also being cancelled.

We’re in quarantine, part of a global “social distancing” campaign to slow the spread of coronavirus and give hospitals a chance to treat patients. For at least 15 days, top health experts are asking us to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more people, work from home whenever possible, and stay home entirely if we are sick or in a high-risk group.

Of course, we’re expected to protect each other from voluntary gatherings and to stay at least 6 feet away from each other. But we have reason to worry about our mental health.” Because social contact is a basic human need, without it, we suffer mentally and physically.” Dr. Jud Brewer, a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist and associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health, told Health.

There is, of course, a difference between isolation and loneliness, and it’s especially important to emphasize that now while we’re socially distant.” Isolation is the physical separation from other people, while loneliness is an emotional state of feeling alone or separate,” says Brewer.” The two are closely related, but not the same thing. Loneliness is strongly associated with high blood pressure, sleep disorders, immune stress and cognitive decline. From a mental health perspective, we see more depression and anxiety in lonely people.”

Those who are anxious may feel particularly vulnerable as the world seems to be entering uncertain times.” Many people aren’t used to being alone,” Dr. Tara Well, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University’s Barnard College, told Health.” When we feel anxious, we have a natural tendency to want to connect with others.” She notes that even introverts can feel this way.

Dr. Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, told Health that those who suffer from depression can also be vulnerable while physically distant.” One of the biggest risks, especially at times like these, is a tendency to get lost in negative thinking.” Markman says, “There’s no way to stop the cycle when you can’t verbalize your fears and have them checked by others.” For people who are prone to depression, they want isolation, and being with other people elevates your mood,” he adds.” You can find yourself, not only stuck in negative thoughts, but feeling very closed off.”

Now the goal of social distancing is separation, but not loneliness. Here are some ways to do that.


Face-to-face contact with others

We live in a world where digital communication is as common as face-to-face communication. But in the complete absence of any face-to-face contact, not all alternatives are created equal, Brewer says.

“The standard social media interactions of quickly scrolling through other people’s activities, superficially commenting on posts, and generally engaging in activities that promote comparing your situation to others are unhelpful and possibly even harmful,” he says.” Instead, use social media and communication tools to engage meaningfully with only a few people.”

Brewer suggests setting up a home chat room, or holding regular video conferences with co-workers when you’re out of the office (Glossier just made a big one!) .” As with many things, quality is more important than quantity,” says Brewer.” In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of us have actually deepened our relationships because this crisis has forced us to use new channels of communication.”

Do something meaningful.

Constantly checking COVID-19 for the latest updates may not be productive for your mental health. Instead, engage in meaningful tasks.” These can range from housework to reading to finally starting that project you’ve been unable to tap into,” says Brewer.” Staying engaged in the world allows us to use newer, more logical parts of our brains, making us less likely to dwell on things we can’t control.”

Play with your pets.
If you have a pet, remember that now is a good time to rely on their companionship. A little touch increases dopamine and serotonin, both of which help stabilize moods and relieve stress, says Well.” Petting your cat or dog may be especially comforting during times of social distancing,” she explains. Play fetch. Take them for a walk. Really love them now.

Keep your sense of humor.

Keep sending memes to your friends. Don’t stop watching really stupid stupid movies. It’s okay to laugh at some of your situations like never before. Never make fun of other people’s interests, Markman says, but keep smiling.

“It’s easy to be very serious about everything right now,” says Markman.” Sure, it’s serious. People are sick, people are dying. But if you look at the whole history, the worst case scenario, the people who feel the best about getting through it from a mental health standpoint are the ones who keep a sense of humor.”

Markman says “gallows humor” exists for a reason – people joke about the idea of death and make terrible things less terrible.” Joking with your friends about how lonely you are is a very rewarding thing to do.” He said. Humans’ “ability to find humor in anything” is one of their more valuable traits, he added.

Reach out to those who may be worse off.
Maybe you’re afraid of feeling alone. But you can probably think of a few people who might be worse off, maybe they have clinical depression or another diagnosed disorder, or maybe they’re just prone to feeling lonely. So make an effort to connect with people in the way you want to connect with them.

“Think about the people on that list who may not have anyone they can talk to,” says Markman.” Make sure you reach out, send a note, give them a call. One good thing right now is that while some industries are pretty busy, there are a lot of people who aren’t so busy right now, for better or worse. If you know someone who may be struggling financially, reach out and let them know that they are not alone. Reach out to someone you know and let them know that they are not alone. Give them a text message or a phone message at first to let them know they are in touch with others.”

Focus your energy on the ways you want people to check in with you, whether it’s your kids, a great aunt in a nursing home across the country, a friend who is single and living alone, or a brother whose job may be hurting during this crisis.

Exercise, preferably outdoors.
The virus is less likely to spread outdoors in the open air, so spend more time there. If you see a friend or two while you’re hiking or biking, that’s better than being indoors, too.” Being outdoors is a safe thing to do,” says Markman.” As long as you give yourself physical distance, you can be around [friends] outside.”

Markman also points out that exercise is good for mental health. If the gym in your area is closed and you can’t get your exercise, go outside for a walk or bike ride. As we head toward warmer weather, you’ll have more opportunities to be outside and you’ll get more of the mood-boosting vitamin D from the sun.

As of the time of publication, the information in this story is accurate. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it is possible that some of the data has changed since publication. While Health is working to keep our coverage as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay abreast of news and advice for their own communities by using the resources of the CDC, WHO, and local public health departments.