Almost a month has passed since we are in a “state of emergency” in Romania and most of us are isolated at home. We may still have at least this much more to #stayhome. The rhythm of our daily lives has been greatly slowed by the restrictive measures such as isolation. And the effects of this isolation in the covid-19 pandemic are becoming more visible in many people.
Staying at home and not knowing when the isolation will end, we have only one thing to do. Namely, to adapt to what is here and now and to integrate as healthy as possible what is in our lives today. Easy said in a few words, but very comprehensive.
Let’s first see what the impact of isolation at home is from a psychological point of view. Then I want to write about how we can integrate this period of time as healthy as possible to help you take care of your mental and emotional health.
What is the impact of home isolation on our lives?
We can look at the impact of isolation on our lives on many levels. These levels are (and are not limited to) the psychological, social, economic and physical levels. Mostly, the impact is negative, depending on our resources and how we use them to improve our experiences.
Of course, there are many people who do not feel that this period of time is a negative one for them. We are not only talking about children, but even they can get bored in the house. Rather, adults who enjoy quarantine and have positive experiences. They use this time to heal, relax and develop personally. They can be good role models.
The economic impact
The economic impact is strongly felt due to the fact that staying at home froze the economy in several sectors. If people aren’t going out (or are going out but only for strictly necessary things or emergencies) they are spending less money.
Many people work from home, many have job uncertainty, many have lost some of their income, other people have lost their jobs.
Financial security is a basic need. It gives us many freedoms and privileges. But when financial security is fragile, we return to what is strictly necessary to preserve money as much as possible.
The physical impact
Before the pandemic it was very natural to leave the house. Going out and walking on the street is a restricted freedom right now. The fact that we are isolated in our houses and can only go out for a specific purpose (with a filled out form in Romania) has a negative impact on us.
We are less exposed to sunlight. We also see nature less often. Sunlight and spending time in nature are very important for our overall health. Those who have a yard or a dog to take out daily are lucky. Or those who have a brave cat to put in a leash and take for a walk.
Decreased physical activity is has negative effects on physical and mental health. But it is an easy thing to correct because we can do sports at home whenever we can.
Because one of the measures to prevent the spread of covid-19 is physical distancing, isolation adding to social distancing, we can feel more lonely. We can’t see our close friends anymore. We can’t go to events anymore or on vacation. Even worse, some of us can’t even see our family.
Thus we can feel sad, we can star missing the people in our lives, even the ones we didn’t like. The lack of social contact is bad for us. Our brain is a social organ. And loneliness has negative effects on us when we have limited resources to overcome it.
Physical distancing is not the same as social distancing. The first means that we physically distance ourselves from others. Social distancing is decreased social contact.
The World Health Organization distinguishes between the two and urges us to remain socially connected but physically distant. It is good to maintain social contact with as many people during this difficult time. It is beneficial for both us and other people. You don’t know who’s day will brighten because you asked them how they are doing. Otherwise we can feel lonely quite easily.
What is the psychological impact of home isolation?
The psychological impact of home isolation is very wide. Every event or thing, relationship can have an impact on our mental, emotional state. Sudden changes in our lives and losses (of freedoms, status, relationships, people) also have a strong mental impact. Some can even be traumatic, as shown by numerous studies conducted during the SARS and MERS epidemics.
In isolation we are more likely to experience difficulties such as:
- Anxiety, insomnia, due to events that happen in our lives, but also globally
- Boredom due to exhaustion of activities at home
- Sadness, even depression due to the losses we experience during this period, maybe even due to lack of hope for things to be better
- Loneliness due to distancing and lack or diminished social contact
- Being upset and feeling anger, being mad at people, authorities, children, situation
- Emotional imbalances due to changes in our lives (not going out, reduced activity, decreased social contact) or events that happen beyond our control (loss of loved ones, jobs)
- Compulsive actions or behaviors due to boredom or difficulty accepting or managing our emotions, or mental or addictive disorders
- Conflicts with family or life partner due to small misunderstandings that may lead to larger conflicts, or unresolved relational issues
- Concerns about work, health, family, financial situation due to the uncertainty specific to this period of the new coronavirus pandemic
- Loss of pre-pandemic status (social, civil status, role or rank in the company)
- Worsening of symptoms in people who before the pandemic had various mental health disorders (for example in anxiety disorders: obsessive compulsive disorder – contamination-related obsessions, and health-related anxiety)
There is a study from 2015 from South Korea in which took part 1692 isolated subjects for 2 weeks during the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic. 47.2% of patients infected with this virus felt anxiety and 52.8% anger. At 4-6 months after the isolation was lifted, anxiety and anger decreased in patients who had MERS, at 19.4% and 30.6% respectively.
7.6% of people isolated during the MERS epidemic had symptoms of anxiety and 16.6% anger. At 4-6 months after the end of the isolation period, 3% of the isolated people had symptoms of anxiety and 6.4% anger.
During the MERS epidemic, which had a mortality rate of 20%, 80.2% of the general population was afraid of becoming infected, and 46% reported emotional disorders. Symptoms of anxiety, anger and aggression can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without early intervention.
Another pandemic disaster study published by Cambridge University Press in 2013 shows that both parents and children who were isolated or quarantined showed PTSD symptoms.
How to take care of your mental and emotional health
It is very important to take care of ourselves in as many ways as we can. There are several things we can do for our well-being. In this time of isolation at home during the covid-19 pandemic we can focus on the relationship with oneself and others. It is also at the top of the list to be careful and what kind of information we are exposed to. Some news and social media posts can induce a state of anxiety or panic, or other negative emotions.
Psychical activity, nutrition and a balanced diet contribute to our well-being over a longer period of time. We must not neglect our basic needs to support our body and help it be as healthy as possible.
We can have difficulty managing emotions and thus cause conflicts with family members. In order to deal with difficult situations, it is good to find ways to express our emotions, needs, desires, feelings in a way that is as mature and useful as possible.
We can begin to do this by accepting our own experiences as well as those of family members. It is a new situation for all of us and we do not know how to deal with it. Therefore, be kind and patient. It is important to support ourselves and those around us.
Let’s look at the things you can do to take care of your mental and emotional health. Let’s start with the basic needs:
Sleep takes up almost a third of our lives. It helps us recharge our batteries and cleanse our brains of toxins accumulated during the day. It also plays an important role in memory, creativity and in organizing the accumulated information.
Now that many of us stay home more, we’re perhaps staying late to watch series (for example) rather than going to sleep in time. However, for proper functioning we need to give our brain and mind space for relaxation through sleep.
Pay attention to disturbances in your sleep. Sleeping should be neither too much nor too little, but enough. Sleep disturbances can have several psychological causes that you should look into. Of course, when other causes can be ruled out (physical health problems). Consult a mental health specialist if this happens.
Try to create a healthy sleeping ritual that you will follow every day.
A healthy diet is important for mental and emotional well-being. Include in your diet fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. These will give you the nutrients your brain needs to produce essential chemicals for a balanced functioning.
Move your body
Whether you walk around the house, spend time in your garden, walk around your home or do sports at home, exercising is generally good for body and mind. The body needs to move at least 30 minutes a day for good physical health. You can also access online yoga, cardio, krav maga, dance classes, all at home.
Connect with yourself
The relationship you have with yourself is very important. In isolation we lose some parts of who we were before the pandemic. We may lose some roles, but gain others. Some parts of us become less active (eg the responsible office part present mostly at work) and others become more active (eg the role of being a parent). You can let other parts sleep and resume them when you need them. It’s always good to stay connected to who we are today by looking at which part of you is active and leading.
Discover things about yourself through what you do. Notice how your values, your characteristics, your personality stand out every day.
You can also connect with yourselves through breathing, meditation or mindfulness exercises.
Speak with your friends and family
Family is very important to us. Not only in these times when we may fear for our mother, father, children or our elders. If you can avoid visiting your elders, do it. Otherwise you can expose them to infection with the new coronavirus.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has separated us from our loved ones. But not completely, because we have tools that we can use to maintain social contact. We have online platforms that allow group video calls or video conferencing: WhatsApp, Skype, Facetime, Google Duo or Signal.
We can video-call our friends and family and see them. It is the best way to see each other during the pandemic. You can tell them a word of reassurance, you can support them, and they can do the same for you.
By keeping in touch with your loved ones in this way, you eliminate the negative feelings you may have, fears or loneliness. Even if you live by yourself, it’s a simple way to have your loved ones “in your house”.
Be careful what kind of information you expose yourself to
Since the pandemic began, news channels and social media have been the most accessible sources of information. While many of the news we see are useful and keep us informed, there are many that spread negative or even false information.
The purpose of fake-news is to misinform or create panic. Even without sensational news, the pandemic has a strong impact on each of us. Therefore, it is good to filter very well what news we see and how much time we spend with it.
To prevent unnecessary panic, it is good to try to check the fatalistic titles or conspiracy theories that are becoming popular during this period. Or at least look at them with a skeptical eye.
Be kind with yourself and accept your emotions
None of us has ever been through a pandemic like this. It is understandable that all of these effects of the covid-19 pandemic are new to everyone. That is why it is good to be gentle with ourselves.
It is normal to feel anger, frustration, confusion, sadness, fear, anxiety and the full range of possible emotions. It’s part of being human. Awareness and acceptance of the emotions we feel are important steps to get through this period.
Keep yourself grounded in the present moment
Our emotions can become very strong if we let them, and can bring with them all sorts of negative thoughts. We could believe these thoughts just because the emotions we feel are intense. But just because we feel the strong emotions does not mean that the thoughts that accompany them are the reality.
In the difficult times we are experiencing because of the coronavirus pandemic, we are vulnerable to mistakes in our thinking. We all make these mistakes. They are called cognitive distortions and can be approached in a balanced way that can get us closer to the objective reality.
By correcting cognitive distortions we can anchor ourselves as much as possible in the present moment. This way we can reduce the intensity of the emotions we feel and we can become more realistic and grounded in the present moment.
Say “No” to yourself when necessary
Being isolated at home we can tend to have unhealthy behaviors. For example, some people, due to boredom or difficult to manage emotions, go to the fridge several times a day without being hungry. The result is gaining weight and strengthening this compulsive eating behavior. Other people use drugs or alcohol. The results are the strengthening of the neural circuits of addiction in the brain and the deterioration of health and relationships.
We can have many other compulsive behaviors. They can be addictive. Examples of compulsive behaviors are:
- Excessive shopping: especially since online shopping is much easier to do without being aware of the amounts spent
- Pathological gambling
- Pulling hair, eyelashes or skin
- Nail biting
- Scratching or cutting the skin
- Hoarding objects
- Checking, counting or washing excessively
- Overworking or workaholism
If you notice that you tend to do some of these compulsive actions, allow yourself to become aware of them in order to stop them. And if it gets harder for you, ask for help from a mental health specialist.
Focus on what you can do and let go of what you can’t control
There is a prayer called the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and philosopher, and first published in 1951. It sound like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Helplessness can fuel our anxiety or anger. We can feel calmer if we focus on what we can do and accept and let go what we cannot control.
Here is an infographic that I made to illustrate what things we can control:
Spend your free time doing something you enjoy
During this time we can have more free time than the usual. This is a good time to start a hobby or continue an older one.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to have a hobby and you didn’t for various reasons. You can do this now. If you don’t have the time to start a new hobby, at least set aside a few minutes a day to invest in yourself.
Ask for help if you encounter difficulties
This situation related to the covid-19 pandemic can be difficult for each of us. The presence of uncertainty and helplessness can give us all kinds of thoughts and feelings. These can cause us to act in a way that can hurt our loved ones, and ultimately ourselves.
It’s okay to feel any storm of emotions. But if you feel it is difficult to manage the emotions you feel, compulsive behaviors you may have or problems in your couple or family, ask for specialized support. These new problems that arise in isolation or quarantine can be addressed in psychotherapy sessions or online counseling.
How to protect your mental health if you were already suffering from a mental disorder before the pandemic
The covid-19 pandemic caught us unprepared. If you suffered from a mental disorder before the pandemic, it is important to take a few precautions in addition to those already mentioned above. The ideas outlined above apply to you as well.
Remember that you need to take care of yourself in all the ways you can. This way you can maintain a good state of mental health during this pandemic.
Monitor your symptoms
Being isolated during the pandemic can worsen the anxiety of people who have an anxiety disorder or depression. Of course, other people may also have worsening of some symptoms of present disorders (obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, major depressive episode, bipolar disorder and others) during this period of time.
That is why it is good to keep an eye on the symptoms you are feeling these days. You can even ask for feedback from those close to you to reflect on whether they also notice something changed in you.
If you notice that some symptoms are becoming difficult to manage, consider online consultation with a mental health specialist – psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Many such specialists offer online consultations during the coronavirus pandemic.
The fact that it is recommended by the authorities to stay at home does not mean that access to medical or psychological services is blocked.
Continue your medical treatment
First and foremost, if you are taking medication it is important to continue it. Discontinuation of the medication without the supervision of the psychiatrist is not recommended.
Therefore, make sure you have enough medicines for as long as possible, as it is best not to run out. This avoids the unpleasant situation of not finding the medicine you need.
Continue your psychotherapy treatment
Psychotherapy is also just as important as the medication. Continue if already in therapy, your sessions online, or start a therapeutic journey if you feel you need it. Just the fact that #stayhome shouldn’t stop you from getting the support and treatment you need.
There are plenty of safe platforms through which you can see your psychotherapist. For example Skype.
Thus, you can ensure that you are getting the help you need during this difficult time for most people.
- Take care of your physical health through by getting enough sleep, doing physical activity and having a balanced diet. These all contribute to a good mental state.
- Keep in touch with people close to you through video calling technologies.
- Connect with yourself by observing your values and characteristics that you manifest in your daily actions. This way you can learn new things about yourself.
- Keep your exposure to negative news or social media as limited as you can.
- Take care of the quality of your mind and emotions by correcting cognitive distortions.
- Notice if you tend to have compulsive behaviors and learn to say “no” to yourself when needed.
- Accepting the situation as it is and focusing on what you can control directly are two things that help you have a better inner state.
- If you were having mental health problems since before the coronavirus pandemic, then in addition to the above, you can monitor your symptoms to see if some get worse. Also continue taking your medication and your psychotherapy (online).
- In any case, if there are problems or difficulties that you can not manage on your own, seek specialized support.
- American Psychological Association
- World Health Organization
- European Association of Psychological Associations
- Mental health status of people isolated due to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome https://dx.doi.org/10.4178%2Fepih.e2016048
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Parents and Youth After Health-Related Disasters https://doi.org/10.1017/dmp.2013.22