Photo by: Yin Liqin
By: Dynasti deGouville
Since the coronavirus outbreak sparked late in 2019, it has infected an unprecedented percentage of the population, causing officials on every continent to federally mandate social distancing practices. For those who test positive for the virus and those who have recently come into contact with them, they are required to go into either full isolation or quarantine for at least 14 days, respectively. As increasingly stringent measures are placed in order to protect the health of those most vulnerable to coronavirus and ‘flatten the curve’ as health officials say, mental health experts are warning that the impacts of social isolation and quarantine will come with psychological costs.
Recently mandated shelter-in-place orders require individuals to stay indoors, urging them to avoid all nonessential travels to slow or halt the spread of coronavirus. Across the country, people are working from home, college campuses are closed until the fall semester, and some are simply out of a job. While some countries have seen vast improvements in the spread of coronavirus since implementing social distancing rules, many report feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Some even report a relapse into depressive episodes that they were avoiding before the beginning of the pandemic. While most evidence thus far has been primarily anecdotal with limited formal studies, almost all psychologists agree that to go against our very nature and avoid social interactions can have devastating impacts on mental health. “The coronavirus spreading around the world is calling on us to suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection: seeing our friends, getting together in groups, or touching each other,” says Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician at Yale University.
The American Psychological Association (APA) warns that people should expect feelings of anxiety or fear, boredom and depression, frustration and irritability, and stigmatization of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or those who have been around them. Over long periods of time, social isolation can increase the risk of a variety of health problems, including heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death. A 2015 meta-analysis of the scientific literature by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a research psychologist at Brigham Young University, and colleagues determined that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%. The reasons behind these psychological byproducts of social distancing primarily include our natural responses to stress. Namely, how we rely on the support systems around us to cope with everyday struggles. There is evidence that simply having a loved one present can reduce negative cardiovascular responses to stressful situations. Without the support systems that we have grown to rely on, many find themselves left to cope with their stressors by themselves, leading to a sharp increase in depression and anxiety.
Experts say that the elderly and those with pre-existing mental health conditions are the most vulnerable. People with disabilities who require specialized diets, medical supplies, or specialized care are also among the more vulnerable groups as it may become increasingly more difficult to receive the care they need. Additionally, those who have lost their income due to a pandemic-driven layoff may also face anxieties about how to feed their families and pay their bills. Those who have had a loved one test positive for coronavirus may worry about their health or the health of those around them. College students may face anxieties about how they will pass their online classes or apply for graduate programs. Chinese-Americans may face anxieties about the discrimination and stigmatization they face. Everyone is affected by the pandemic and almost everyone will face some degree of fear, but it is important to remember that humans are intrinsically resilient. Given proper counseling and resources once social distancing mandates are lifted, everyone affected has the potential to recover from their traumas.
Fortunately, the APA has recommendations for coping. They suggest limiting news consumption to reliable sources as to limit the probability of exposing yourself to falsified information. This can trigger gratuitous anxiety. They also recommend creating and maintaining a healthy daily routine. Following a daily routine can be very helpful in cultivating a sense of structure and purpose despite the uncertainties of social distancing or quarantine. Finally, the APA suggests that using phone calls, text messaging, video chatting, or social media are great ways to stay connected with your loved ones and find platforms for you to discuss your emotions freely. This way, you will not feel as if you are enduring a pandemic by yourself.
The psychological aftermath of a pandemic may seem grim, and most may wonder if this will ever end. However, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Everyone is enduring hardships. If you know any healthcare workers, anyone who suffers underlying mental health issues, or if you yourself are struggling to find some semblance of stability, reach out and remind them that you are there.
Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review. Nation Center For Biotechnology Information, 7(7), e1000316. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.
Miller, Greg. (2020). Social Distancing Prevents Infections, But It Can Have Unintended Consequences. The American Association for the Advancement of Science. doi:10.1126/science.abb7506
American Psychological Association. (2020). Keeping Your Distance to Stay Safe. American Psychological Association.
Author Bio: Dynasti deGouville is a second year undergraduate from Atlanta, Georgia double majoring in Human Health and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her main interest in health includes women’s health and health disparities across racial boundaries. She hopes to one day use these tools to become an OB/GYN to improve the condition of women’s health domestically and internationally.