Social isolation and mental well-being during the coronavirus outbreak
Last night, the dark night air in my hometome of London felt heavy with uncertainty, and tinged with a sense of anxiety. As I walked down Portobello Road, I peered into the windows of local cafes and pubs — usually bustling with cheery faces. In scenes that I’m sure are being repeated around the world, just a few people sat alone or in small groups, alongside establishment owners who appeared understandably uneasy about what might lie ahead for their busniesses. Even as someone who works in mental well-being, I came home anxious about the world’s ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As described in the recent The Atlantic article “Cancel Everything”, the results of tough quarantine measures taken in China, Singapore and Italy in this pre-vaccine COVID-19 era, suggest that strict social isolation seems to effectively stem the virus’ spread. China recently reported single digit growth in daily cases after weeks of restrictions — far less than we are presently seeing here. With the UK government’s controversial decision not to declare mandatory closures to many of the county’s businesses, schools, universities and workspaces — apparently to “delaying the peak to ease pressure on the NHS”, and to encourage “herd immunity” or boost the population’s long-term resilience — further requirements for social isolation are most likely yet to come here too. It seems that, even amongst medical experts and policy-makers, there is a lack of consensus on how best to react to this novel virus and international situation — although the WHO Director General’s recommendations on Friday included social distancing (like avoiding “unnecessary travel and large social gatherings”) and good personal hygiene (my favourite demo so far is this video).
Where our leaders have not yet set tight restrictions on our daily lives, it is up to us as individuals to choose how we respond. Many of us who can are opting to self-isolate — or to reduce our contact with others as much as is practically possible. This excellent Medium article by Tomas Pueyo offers a strong case for this, and practical actions to take considering the contagious nature of the virus. After interviews and tip-offs from top doctors, popular thought leaders like Tim Ferriss and Sam Harris have been urging us to take this seriously. In his March 11 “Making Sense” podcast episode, Harris summarises:
“COVID-19 is worse than the flu…social distancing is essential…to get the worst flu in your life is bad, but to get it when the healthcare system has collapsed…is very different than when hospitals are functioning normal [sic]…There is an obvious trade-off between economic incentives and containing the spread of this disease, we should be privileging the latter…this is absolutely the time to avoid social gatherings and public transport as much as possible…” — Sam Harris
The mental, emotional and social impacts of unprecedented social isolation measures across many countries, are undoubtedly difficult for individuals to deal with. Italians are understandably reported as feeling “a sense of claustrophobia…fear…depression” under the government’s “I stay home” measures to combat hockey-stick infection rates. Many accounts of life inside “locked down” areas of China like Wuhan describe the effect of uncertainty on people’s mental health as a tough part of their experience, with one recovered COVID-19 patient advising those of other nationalities: “You will need to treat it rationally, and don’t be unduly alarmed”.
The impacts on how we feel
Social isolation and a fear of physical contact with others can cause many of us to feel (or fear feeling) lonelier. Recent research found that an estimated 9 million people already feel always or often lonely in the UK at any given time, usually due to inadequate social contact with others.
This adds to the anxiety and stress around the uncertainty surrounding the international spread of the virus. For many of us it’s the upcoming unknown effects on society, and the freedoms we normally enjoy in our daily lives. It can also be easy to worry about the physical threat to ourselves (even though most cases are reported as mild) or our loved ones. Many businesses, jobs and asset markets are being affected in unprecedented ways that noone can really predict, putting financial strains on vast numbers of people. This stress overhead makes us feel even worse — stress can have many negative effects on our mood, how we eat, sleep and encourages us to indulge in unhealthy crutches (like binging on alcohol).
There are also the potential feelings of social stigma for those who catch COVID-19, or even shaming of those experiencing heightened anxiety about the situation. Others have faced social shunning or even racial abuse if they are perceived to be from an area of the world particularly hard hit by the virus. In our international world, many feel separated from loved ones around the globe.
Even though the pandemic affects people of different economic and social circumstances in various degrees of severity and ways — mentally emotionally we are also all in this together. This is one of humanity’s most significant shared experiences of modern times. Americans and Europeans are not simply empathising with people suffering in “other” countries (like from devastating infectious diseases like malaria, or during forced refugee displacements) from our relatively safe cocoons. We all have the potential to feel the mental and physical effects directly for this one.
You can check out mental health guidance specifically released for the COVID-19 outbreak by the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - covering information for the general public, healthcare workers and caretakers of children.
Here are some practical ways to mentally and emotionally cope better:
- Meditation has been shown to have a multitude of positive effects on our mental and physical well-being, and now might be a good time to start. You can find many relaxing meditations on the Insight Timer and Calm apps. Maybe even aim to maintain it as a habit going forward, to give more perspective and mental resilience in times of elevated stress. Thought-leaders like Deepak Chopra or Megan Monohan have been sharing positive content and meditations on their social media accounts to help us calm down too.
- Staying mindful when doing your day to day tasks can also help. Ideas for when you’re feeling overwhelmed include: calmly closing your eyes and counting five slow, deep breaths in and out; pausing to notice three objects, two sounds and one smell in your immediate environment; or going through all five of your senses individually (noticing sight, smell, sounds, tastes and touch) to stay present whilst preparing or eating a meal. You can also “free write” or journal throughout the experience to organise and track your thoughts and feelings.
- Healthy relationships are key for our mental well-being. In less-contagious times, technology can make us feel more socially isolated; but we can also use it to build the sense of community that we might be missing IRL. If you can’t see people in-person, try making sure you speak to someone who makes you feel uplifted on the phone or via video call every day. You can even arrange meals, play games or have creative sessions with loved ones via video call. For example, try eating a meal at the same time, placing your phones on the other side of the table! It often makes us feel better to discuss how we are feeling with someone we trust. Reaching out to people who might be alone, or feeling anxious or overwhelmed, can also help us get through hard times together, even in isolation. Helping others also boosts our own mental well-being.
- Social media self-isolation support groups (like this one on Facebook, or you can make your own on Whatsapp) are popping up to help members: stay positive with humour; share novel ideas on using isolation time productively (start a new painting or writing hobby anyone?) or movie and boxset advice; debunk fake news; and share useful updates. Research has even found that shared negative experiences can bring people emotionally closer together. Although it’s a time where we might be tempted to feel alone, it is also perhaps the most acutely intense novel shared experience on a local, national and global level, of many of our lifetimes. Perhaps we will connect more deeply with people, if we feel able to open up and understand each other through mutual compassion.
- Speaking of using your time productively, if you’ve wanted to read a book (here are 10 books that totally transformed my view of life), learn a new skill (like a language), or take an online course (you can check many affordable or free ones out on Udemy or Coursera) but haven’t prioritised it — take extra time indoors as an opportunity. Maybe it’s just a household task you’ve been putting off — but take care with any DIY work!
- If you have to or choose to work from, or stay at, home, try to maintain some kind of routine — maybe wake up, go to sleep and eat at regular times, decide to exercise on certain days or diarise blocks of work for certain tasks. Keeping regular timings has been shown to help maintain our sleep patterns, eat healthier and stress less. You can find more tips on working from home in these articles by the BBC and CNN.
- Taking part in physical activity — you can search for yoga, aerobic or calisthenic exercise videos online — has been found to have numerous benefits like improving our cognitive function, boosting our perceptions of quality of life, and reducing anxiety and depression.
- Numerous studies show that spending time in nature can have positive effects on us like lowering our blood pressure and boosting happiness. If you can, try to spend time in a garden or on a patio, go for a walk in the park, in a forest or by the sea — taking time to mindfully notice your surroundings. If you’re stuck indoors, commit to noticing how the sky, or other natural phenomena like trees, look out of the window each day — research suggests a window view of nature can help shorten recovery time of hospital patients. Being a house plant “parent” has been shown to improve our mood; and listening to nature sounds or looking at images of green environments are thought to also have calming benefits — time to change your laptop’s background.
- Laughter is another intuitive way to make us feel better, and can even soothe physical tension, strengthen our immune system and give us pain relief. Try catching up on the phone with a positive friend, watching a comedy series or movie, or checking your favourite meme account. Listening to music we enjoy can also boost our mood.
- It’s good to stay up-to-date with local developments and advice, but if you start to feel overwhelmed and stressed by the news, follow the CDC’s advice and take a break from it. Try not to have news going on in the background — check for updates but not constantly and set a time limit on when you’ll check at night. Notice how you feel before and after you see it. If you feel like you are compulsively checking, give someone you care about a call, or do something productive, like picking up a book, instead.
- If you are still feeling unable to cope or overwhelmed, and speaking to someone close to you who you trust doesn’t help you feel better, contact your family doctor or seek a professional counsellor or therapist — it’s possible to have sessions remotely, over the phone or online.
We have more in this than we might realise…
Negative emotions often arise when we feel like we don’t have options. Even in times of uncertainty and unprecedented social measures, we can each choose how we respond and act to improve our emotional, mental and physical well-being. We can try our best to support each other and to live from a place of compassion for ourselves, those around us, and humanity as a whole, rather than getting caught up in negative thought spirals and fear.
People in economically developed countries are starting to rethink priorities, and we may realise who and what is really important going forward, after the foundational levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs have felt less steady.
COVID-19 is an imminent, tangible threat to society, and the world is responding accordingly with urgent speed. Coming during a time of high anxiety but slow action on man-made environmental damage and climate change, in recent weeks, as transportation and industrial activities have been slowed by population lockdowns, a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide air pollution in Northern Italy, and damaging air particles in China have been noticed from space.
I hope that humanity comes out as a whole stronger and wiser from this pandemic. I also hope our politicians will manage to see beyond the short term, and we will learn to work better together to apply the urgent gravitas we are giving to this pandemic to environmental emergencies too, so that human beings, and the rest of life on earth (maybe bar a few virulent pathogens), can survive and thrive on this planet together.