Social distancing—even the phrase sounds dire. Step away from the other people. And now we have at least two more weeks of it. While Americans haven’t been accused of being the most effusive culture on the planet, we do at least like to be near other people. Humans are social animals after all. We’re evolutionarily wired for proximity to each other. So, these new protocols (staying six feet apart, voluntarily quarantining as much as possible) are necessary, but may not be natural.

Even when you’re totally healthy, not having social interactions can hurt both your physical and mental wellbeing. Studies have shown loneliness can lead to diabetes, autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis and lupus), and cardiovascular diseases. If you’re already prone to depression, anxiety, and loneliness, you’re hit even harder. And that’s when life is normal, not in the current coronavirus culture.

In this new world of telecommuting, self-quarantining, and seemingly incessant handwashing, the impact may be even more dramatic. The somewhat reassuring news is that we have an idea of what to expect and who is at risk thanks to the piles and piles of research that was done after the SARS epidemic in 2003 and 9/11.

Who Is Most At Psychological Risk?

What we’ve learned is that some groups will feel the emotional impact more than others. According to research, it’s these folks:

  • 16-24 years old
  • Women
  • Have a history of psychiatric illness
  • Have one child (as opposed to having none or more than one)
  • Healthcare workers

In general, anyone who has already had some trauma in the past could be more affected. “This kind of event has a way of unearthing past trauma and bringing it up to the surface,” says Dr. Adam Kaplin, M.D., PhD., a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Factors That Increase The Already Stressful Situation

A few things go a long way in keeping everyone calm. Not surprisingly, whether or not the quarantine is mandated or not and how long it will last are the top two. Also, that the duration doesn’t change. Exactly no one wants to find out on day 13 that the 14-day quarantine is going to become a 21-day one. Of, course, these things aren’t really in our control, but a lot of other things are that can help.

Common Emotional Reactions To The Coronavirus Situation

According to the American Psychological Association, there’s a spectrum of emotions and strain right now; and it will evolve. “The further you are from engaging with others and feeling a connection, the more of an impact it will have,” says Dr. Kaplin,

There are a range of emotions people are expected to have right now:

  • Fear and anxiety It’s 100 percent normal to be worried about contracting or spreading COVID-19. Here are the facts: The virus is contagious—experts say the rate of infection  is 2-3. That’s high, but it’s not measles high, which is around 12. The problem is, symptoms can spread before anyone knows they’re sick and the virus can live on surfaces for a while—a day on cardboard and two to three on plastic or stainless steel. It’s also normal to feel anxious about getting food and supplies. We’re not used to seeing empty grocery store shelves or lines to get into the store.
  • Depression and boredom Our normal daily routines are completely out of whack right now. Many of us are staying home, instead of going into work, kids are doing online learning instead of being out of the house. It’s nearly impossible to get into a rhythm with so much uncertainty. Add in the fact that you can’t go to the movies, restaurants, big parties.
  • Anger, frustration or irritability This trio of feelings has its root in the fact that we’ve had to relinquish control of so many things at once. It may be directed at particular people, like the man in the grocery store who loaded his cart up with toilet paper and now you can’t find any; or it could be authorities who are imposing quarantines.

What You Can Do

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening, and that it’s stressful. Because it is. “Denial is a remarkably adaptive skill,” says Dr. Kaplin.
  2. Stay connected. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. You can still FaceTime, call, text, have a Zoom happy hour with your friends.
  3. Do benefit finding. “Looking for the good is an important strategy,” says Dr. Julie Kolzet, Ph.D., and a licensed psychologist in NYC (who also sees patients remotely). An example would be if you’re working from home, maybe you have more autonomy now.
  4. Try breathing exercises. Mindful breathing where you match your in breath with your out breath and focus on scanning your body is calming. You don’t have to spend 20 minutes, even three minutes will help.
  5. Be kind. It doesn’t just benefit someone else; you reap the rewards too. According to research, when you do something nice for someone else, your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up. It’s called the “helper’s high.”
  6. Share something good. Even if it’s something small or mundane, like a funny meme or cute picture. Letting someone else in on it, amplifies the good feelings you got from it.
  7. Change your expectations. You add to your own stress levels by creating goals that are unrealistic. “Be easy on yourself,” advises Dr. Kolzet. “It’s not an easy time. Do what you can.” Dr Kaplin agrees. “Our culture doesn’t believe in giving people time to recover and react,” he explains.
  8. Manage your news intake. It is way too easy to get sucked into press conference after press conference and then to check for updates on websites or to obsessively check in on the number of confirmed cases in your state. Being informed doesn’t require you to act like you’re a newsroom producer. It’s okay to set a few times a day where you’ll check in for updates. And, stick to reliable news outlets. Rumors spread quickly and feed into the panic. Here’s a good source from our friends at HealthCentral on everything you need to know about the virus and your risk.
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Last Updated: Aug 14, 2020