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Social Isolation in the Era of Coronavirus Disease

Today's Medicine

Published: March 31, 2020

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about why social isolation and loneliness are on the rise in the United States and how harmful they both can be. Then within days, an era of social distancing began in our country. Those sick with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) or exposed to the virus are in isolation and quarantine while the rest of us do our part by limiting our movement and staying home. 

With schools closed, more people working from home, restaurants open only for takeout and our leaders dissuading us from nonessential errands, a person could easily slip into a state of social isolation. Those at greatest risk for social isolation during this time are those already at high risk during normal times, including seniors. So why should we be mindful of social isolation, and what can we do to help ourselves and loved ones?

 

Effects of social isolation

Social isolation can have dangerous physical effects – research suggests that it’s just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s especially harmful in older people and can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weak immune system and cognitive decline. Add to that a potential decrease of physical activity during our current crisis due to gym closures and – in some parts of the country – park closures. 

Mentally, social isolation during this pandemic will affect us all differently. Maybe you’re thriving as an introvert. But if you’re an extrovert who gets energy from being around others, you might be prone to experiencing feelings of depression and loneliness right now. It can be quite a shock to social beings to be around friends, family, coworkers and the public one day, then be told to stay at home as much possible the next.

There has been some speculation that people with existing anxiety are handling the pandemic surprisingly well since they already function daily with “catastrophized” thoughts in their heads. Some people with existing anxiety and depression might be OK in a situation like this, where everyone has to do the same thing and there are relatively clear expectations to adhere to. In my experience, when a person with anxiety or depression has a clearer view of what’s going on and they have more facts to base assumptions off of, they’re better able to handle changes that occur. 

However, this isn’t the case for everyone with mental health issues. People with more severe and persistent mental illnesses may struggle with telehealth instead of having face-to-face appointments with their therapists. We’re in uncharted territory, and we have to look out for each other. 

 

Can social isolation be prevented?

There’s no one answer to ensure that social distancing doesn’t spiral into social isolation – and it might not be possible. At some point, this will end. For now, we’re not in terrible danger of a large portion of the population suffering prolonged isolation. This is a collective problem, so it will take a collective effort to stay connected with each other. Once restrictions are lifted, I do imagine society will be ready to reconvene with itself. 

Until that time, here are a few things to keep in mind and help you stay social:

  • Technology is your friend! In my last article, I talked about the dangers of technology when it comes to social isolation, but right now it’s a vital lifeline. That doesn’t mean all-day usage or getting lost on social media. But now’s the time to use technology creatively and treat it as a resource. (This isn’t a green light to have your kids check out on a tablet all day.) 
  • Look out for those in your life who may be prone to isolation, especially seniors. Step up your communication with them with phone calls or video chats. And be mindful that your kids might also be feeling isolated, especially if they don’t have access to technology to keep in touch with their friends. Since playdates are off-limits, parents will need to be extra attentive to how their kids are faring socially.   
  • Are you working from home? You might be missing the socialization that happens at work. You may still be connected with your coworkers via video conferencing and messaging apps, but you can’t spontaneously walk over to Jessica’s desk to chat or refill your water bottles together. In my opinion, it’s those micro-interactions that are hardest to be without. Check in with yourself throughout the day. If you’re feeling lonely, empty or just “meh,” reach out to one of your coworkers – even if it’s just to send them a silly meme or joke. 
  • My kitties, Pepper (left) and Martin
    Keep your pets close, or consider fostering or adopting a pet. While your dog isn’t Patrick from the office who’s always good for a laugh, they are a comfort – and that’s something very much needed in a time of change. My own kitties make my life so much better!

 

The Methodist Emotional Support Line

The good news is that this period of time will come to an end – and you’re not alone. Everyone on the planet is experiencing this together. Your feelings are normal. No one has a guidebook on how you should or shouldn’t feel during a pandemic. It’s important to stay connected and support the people you care about. Remember that counseling is always an option.

If you’re experiencing fear, sadness, anxiety or depression, call the Methodist Emotional Support Line to speak with a licensed professional counselor from the Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program. The free, confidential service can be accessed by dialing (402) 815-8255 (TALK) and is available daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Counselors can help by answering questions, addressing concerns, scheduling counseling appointments for additional care and providing referrals to community resources. 

 

More resources

Molly Hefner

About the Author:

Molly Hefner, MS, PLMHP, NCC, is a counselor with Best Care EAP. She has extensive experience in suicide prevention and especially enjoys working with teenagers and young adults. 

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