Social isolation and mental health: Tips from experts on staying healthy

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April 7, 2020
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Social isolation and mental health: Tips from experts on staying healthy

By now, we are all very familiar with the concept of socially distancing ourselves to prevent further transmission of the COVID-19 disease caused by a novel coronavirus. Approximately 97% of people are under stay-at-home orders in the United States and therefore unable to go to work, visit friends and family, or do many of the other small and large things that bring about a sense of joy or purpose.

While those with their physical health are fortunate, we can't forget that many people may be experiencing mental health problems that are either preexisting or exacerbated by our current situation. Social distancing can cause or worsen mental health problems, according to a February 2020 study reviewing the psychological impacts of quarantine. In a March 29, 2020, Science News article by Sujata Gupta, psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein said that for some, "a lack of social connectedness feels as impactful as not eating."

Along with the potential trauma of social isolation, this pandemic is understandably a source of anxiety for many. While it's too soon for exact numbers, mental health doctors are anecdotally reporting seeing increased anxiety among existing patients and an uptick in new patients experiencing anxiety. In a March 26, 2020, interview with Time Magazine's Jeffrey Kluger, psychologist Stefanie Sugar said, "We are seeing our clients who are prone to anxiety or depression or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) experiencing more symptoms."

These anxieties may stem from a fear of the disease itself or concerns about associated issues, such as being able to pay rent, care for children or elderly relatives, or hold onto one's job.

Stacker has compiled a list of 15 ways to help manage your mental health during this time of social isolation due to a global pandemic. These suggestions come from psychiatrists and psychologists, government agencies such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nonprofits like the National Alliance on Mental Health, and scientific studies from around the world.

Seek out or continue with professional help if you need it

If you feel like you're experiencing mental health issues that you can't manage alone, seek out professional help. And if you are already in mental health treatment, continue it. Although we are all physically distancing at this time, many therapists are offering appointments by telephone or online.

Stock up on necessary medications

If you are already taking medications for mental health issues or any other health conditions, try to stock up as much as possible. This is necessary for managing health conditions and for peace of mind, which is important when it comes to mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends asking for a 90-day prescription instead of one for 30 or 60 days. “If health-care providers deny/decline making accommodations, challenge the decisions at least three times,” the organization advises.

Create a routine

In this time of upheaval, a routine can help you feel more centered and allow you to focus on the present tasks. In a January 2016 study from the Annual Review of Psychology, researchers found that people rely on their routines in times of stress. Try making a daily schedule and see if you can stick to it.

Get some exercise

Exercise helps to lower stress levels, helps better regulate emotions, and improves sleep, according to clinical psychologist Desiree Dickerson. Depending on your situation given current social-distancing rules, this could be a hike or a jog or maybe just some yoga in your living room. There are many online exercise resources for people of all fitness levels and interests.

Get fresh air

Your ability to get fresh air will depend on where you live and how much space you can put between yourself and others when you’re outside. Still, even just a little fresh air can make a big difference. Spending just 20 minutes in a park can improve well-being, according to researchers at the University of Alabama who published their findings in January 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. And being outside in green spaces corresponds with lower levels of psychiatric disorders, according to research published in March 2019 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, such as meditation, yoga, or prayer. Keeping your mind in the present can help reduce anxiety. The University of San Diego Center for Mindfulness has a number of online resources.

Connect with others

Although we cannot be physically near one another right now, that doesn’t mean we have to be alone. Rosie Weatherly, a spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind, says that it’s important to stay connected to others. She recommends scheduling regular check-in times with people you care about, be it by phone, email, or video.

Eat healthy

The food we eat has been shown to have an impact on how we feel, both physically and emotionally. Eating well has been associated with lower levels of stress and anxiety, and some of these recommended healthy foods are fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains along with small amounts of meat and dairy.

Get enough sleep

The amount of sleep we get has a big impact on our mental health, as anyone who has ever spent time with an overtired child can attest. "Getting sufficient sleep night after night has been linked to reduced risk factors for developing more serious mental illnesses and affective disorders, like depression especially," says Elizabeth Kensinger, director of Boston College’s Sleep Lab, in a January 2017 article for U.S. News and World Report. One way to help ensure a good night’s sleep is to be active during the day.

Take a break from the news

The news seems to change by the minute, making it tempting to check different news outlets many times a day for the latest updates. However, this can be overwhelming and contribute to anxiety. Sarah Kendrick, a psychotherapist for Shout, recommended picking a trusted news source and visiting it just once a day.

Take a break in general

Kendrick also recommends just taking a break in general. Watch a fun TV show, a good movie, read an engrossing book, or listen to music—anything that can provide relief or distraction from anxious feelings.

Pick up a new hobby

For those of us with some extra time, learning a new skill or hobby is a great way to distract ourselves, manage stress, and even help our brains. Research has shown that learning new skills can help with memory. Also, some hobbies can reduce anxiety. Knitting, for example, involves repetitive motions and concentrated silence, which can produce a meditative experience. However, hobbies don’t have to be learned in complete isolation. One company called “Sh*t That I Knit” offers kits with supplies to knit a scarf along with links to virtual knitting classes and an invitation to a Facebook group where you can meet other knitters.

Limit social media

Given our distance from one another, it’s understandable to be constantly refreshing our social media feeds to see what everyone is up to. But that could be a mistake, according to Claudia W. Allen, director of the Family Stress Clinic and the director of behavioral science in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. She recommends using social media for meaningful connections but to try to resist the endless scroll because some studies show that social media can make us feel left out or “less than.”

Create personal space

While it’s important to maintain connections with loved ones, personal space is also necessary. Allen recommends creating some space among those you live with. You can intentionally plan activities together, like meals and watching movies, along with alone time, where you do things like reading or working separately in your own space.

Help others

It’s important to take care of ourselves right now, but sometimes the best way to do that is by taking care of others. According to Allen, helping others is a mood-booster and will not only make the recipient of your help feel better but will make you feel better, as well. The Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom has a lot of great suggestions for how to help people even when you can’t physically be with them, for example, by sending people cute animal photos or scheduling a time to drink a virtual cup of tea together.

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