Social Distancing and Mental Health

Updated on May 14, 2020

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We humans are social animals, and isolation can have a significant negative effect on our health. We have evolved around groups, and our biological, psychological, and social systems are wired to make us crave interaction.

Only a few months ago, we were able to exchange warm handshakes, hold our loved ones close, go to movie theaters, restaurants, and parties. The current pandemic has caused a deep shift in our lives, but if we look back at history, we realize that we humans are also incredibly adaptable.

With that being said, as the weeks pass, the news headlines become bleaker, social distancing is turning into isolation, and familiar contours of daily life are starting to fade. Many of us are trying to cope with this simmering unease that we’re not equipped for these changes in the long haul.

What Is Social Isolation?

The concept of social isolation is difficult to define. The most important aspect is whether the person feels lonely. Scientists refer to this as perceived social isolation. Studies have found that perceived social isolation is closely associated with cardiovascular disease, poor sleep, unhealthy habits, higher levels of stress, cognitive decline, and depression.

Even before the pandemic, more than half of Americans reported feeling lonely, and it’s no surprise that social distancing measures have increased this number. Although social isolation can be very useful in slowing down the spread of the virus, in such stressful circumstances, it also makes us more vulnerable to anxiety.   

The reason for this is that we use personal relationships to cope with stress. Having people to rely on translates to having resources that will help us survive. You feel like someone has your back, and together you have better chances of getting through dangerous situations. In times of uncertainty such as these, even a few days of isolation can increase the risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

This is why we see people coming out on their balconies and watching their neighbors or using technology to maintain that sense of connection. Of course, this isn’t a perfect substitute since the subtle signals we get from physical contact are key to producing the neurological responses that make us feel safer.

Nevertheless, digital connection is preferable to no connection, and the richer the format, the better. Phone calls will feel more calming that texting, and likewise, video calls will have a stronger effect than phone calls.

Vulnerable Groups

Older people, who are already more anxious because they know they’re at higher risk of developing complications from contracting the novel coronavirus, are also less socially connected and less tech-savvy. They might not even know how to send a text message. We, as a society, need to make sure they feel that they have people looking out for them, people they are connected with, and who care about their well-being.

Regarding those with previous psychiatric diagnoses, they might experience a worsening of their symptoms. We still don’t have enough data to know how people struggling with mood disorders such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder are affected by social distancing measures.

It’s recommended that they don’t discontinue medication. Those that were undergoing therapy sessions should be given the option of continuing them online. One of the challenges of coping with a mood disorder is that you can easily become too overwhelmed to get anything done, lose your motivation, withdraw and fall back on unhealthy habits.

How to Stay Healthy During Social Isolation

Most of the research we have on the effects of social isolation has been on people who, for various reasons, are not able to form or maintain connections with others. This doesn’t apply to current circumstances when people are physically isolated on a large scale, but they can keep in touch through technology.

As we already mentioned, one of the most important things you can do to protect your mental health is to reach out to others through tools like video conferencing platforms. Being able to talk to someone about your worries and share coping strategies has a profound positive impact.

If you have small kids, remember that they may not be able to understand the news they see on TV or social media, but they pick up on how the adults around them feel. It’s best to talk to them, answer their questions, and give them the reassurance they need.

Structure and Routine

Try to give your days some structure. The predictability of a routine will make it easier to deal with all the uncertainty. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, change out of your pajamas, eat regular meals, and keep your home tidy. Avoid working or eating in bed since this can make you feel bed-bound, lethargic, and claustrophobic.

It’s easier to maintain mental clarity if you designate separate zones for your daily activities. For example, you eat at the kitchen table, work at your desk, watch TV on the sofa in the living room, and sleep in your bed.

Avoid Unhealthy Habits

There have been a lot of jokes on social media about how drinking wine will help you deal with the stress caused by lockdowns, but keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant. You may feel more relaxed for the moment, but it will cause sleep problems, and more importantly, it’s addictive.

There are healthier ways of calming down. You can try meditation, cooking healthy meals, exercising, taking hot baths, or sleeping with a weighted blanket. You can also look for hemp flower for sale since CBD is not addictive, generally well-tolerated, and has been shown to help reduce anxiety. It’s certainly a better alternative to consuming more alcohol.

Practice Self-Care

You can look at the lockdown as a chance to slow down. Although you can’t go to the gym anymore, you can always work out at home, and it’s even better if you turn it into a family activity. There are tons of free video tutorials you can find online. Another fun family activity that you now have time for is cooking healthy meals. You’ll have no trouble finding kid-friendly, easy recipes to try.

Lately, there has been a surge in sales for yoga mats, dumbbells, gardening tools, knitting accessories, craft kits, and board games. These all point to strategies people are using to make themselves feel better. Take your pick.

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The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.