The Impact of Social Distancing on Mental Health
As social distancing measures march on, we’re all doing our best to maintain a sense of normality despite how different the world’s become. Most of us have been ordered to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, but mental health experts are expressing serious concern about the impact social distancing can have on the mind.
Social Distancing is Affecting the Minds of Millions
Social distancing has left many people spending more time alone than they ever have before. Some are settling into this new normal just fine. Not everyone, however, has taken so keenly to mandatory social distancing measures.
Humans are social creatures. We need other people to survive and thrive. If you’re experiencing some not-so-pleasant emotions while maintaining your social distance, you’re certainly not alone.
A recent Kaiser Permanente Family Foundation Health Tracking poll shows that over half of U.S. adults (56%) report pandemic-related worry or stress that’s caused them to experience at least one negative consequence on their mental health. Difficulty sleeping, problems with eating, and increased alcohol use are some of the most commonly reported effects. Others are having a hard time controlling their temper. A small percentage say chronic health conditions have gotten worse.
Increased Stress and Sadness are Common
Anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis. In the U.S. alone, some 40 million people experience anxiety each year. 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.
“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,” says Michigan Medicine professor and psychiatrist, Michelle Riba. “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.”
The Effects of Increased Isolation During Social Distancing
Humans are social creatures. We need other people to survive and thrive. People that lived alone before mandatory social distancing could be more apt to increased angst than people who live with others. For a lot of people that live alone, getting out is the only social contact they have. Take that away and they’re left with a loneliness that can trigger some seriously unpleasant emotions.
University of Southern California researcher, Lawrence Palinkas, studies psychosocial adaptation to extreme environments. While research on social distancing during an epidemic is limited, Palinkas says that feelings of anxiety and depression are likely to be particularly extreme right now.
“Oftentimes, if you have a very well defined period of time in which your isolated people do pretty well up until the halfway point,” says Palinkas. “Then they experience a letdown. But when you’re in a situation like we are now, when you’re not certain how long you’ll be asked to maintain social distance, that produces anxiety as well.”
A recently published review looked at the impact of quarantine, assessing 24 studies of the psychological impact quarantined individuals experienced during various outbreaks of diseases like SARS, H1N1 and Ebola. Most of the reviewed studies related negative psychological effects including PTSD, anger, and confusion. Some experienced symptoms that lasted for years.
How the Current Pandemic Is Affecting Our Mental Health
While quarantine takes social distancing to the extreme, it’s important to note that being forced to socially distance from others can really take its toll. According to a Gallup poll published in April, Americans say COVID-19 is affecting their mental health the most.
While it’s true that we’re more connected than ever, this doesn’t mean everyone will fare well mentally during social distancing measures. All the modern technology in the world doesn’t substitute for actual human interaction. Some are doing well, others not so much.
If social distancing is taking its toll on your mental health, there are several things you can do to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings you might be experiencing. First and foremost, realize that you’re not alone. Countless individuals are sharing their feelings online, offering support for others who might be feeling the same.
The following are a few ways to maintain your mental health in these super uncertain times.
Maintaining a Balanced State of Mind During Social Distancing
- Reach Out to Others: Experts maintain that reaching out to people you trust is one of the best ways to minimize any anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom you might be feeling. Phone calls and text messages with friends and loved ones can be huge for minimizing mental angst. Skype, FaceTime and Zoom are also good ways to get some “face-to-face” interaction even when you’re not together physically.
- Try Virtual Therapy: When negative emotions pile up, therapy is a great way to process this new reality. Just because you can’t walk into a therapist’s office doesn’t mean you can’t talk to a professional. Many therapists have switched to virtual meetings due to the pandemic, and there are a host of online resources for those in search of affordable therapy.
- Do Your Best to Maintain a Daily Routine: Living with a routine can help immensely during social distancing. Getting up at the same time each day, showering, and getting dressed all signal your brain that the day has started. If you’re not working, do your best to set up different activities throughout the day to maintain a sense of a routine. If you’re working from home, set up “office hours” and make sure to take breaks throughout the day.
- Limit Time Spent on Social Media: If you find yourself glued to Facebook and Instagram more than usual these days, consider it normal. We’re all looking for increased connection, and right now social media can feel like the only connection we have. Here’s the thing, though. Social media can make us feel even more depressed and lonely. If you’re incessantly scrolling, limiting your time on social networks can do wonders to ease your troubled mind during social distancing.
- Keep Yourself Distracted: Pick something to do each day to keep yourself distracted that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. Cooking, painting, reading books, looking at magazines, rearranging the furniture, looking through old pictures, crafting, sewing, puzzles and more are all ways to distract yourself from the overthinking that can trigger negative emotions.
- Exercise Regularly: If your mental health is suffering, exercise is one of the best things you can do. Engaging in a gentle yoga routine or watching a workout video online are easy ways to get some exercise without having to leave the house. Getting outside to walk, hike, or run is also recommended, as it offers both physical movement and an opportunity to connect with nature. Just be sure to keep an appropriate distance from others.
As we continue to live through this unprecedented time in history, we’re getting a clearer picture of just how much this change is affecting us all. If your mental health is suffering, it can help to know you’re not alone. We’re all in this together and together we can overcome.