The prospect of seeing your co-workers in person at the office again or reuniting with friends in a restaurant – even with limitations in place – seems more meaningful now as we cautiously emerge from stay-at-home orders. Along the way, we began to appreciate that video-conferencing and drive-by socializing can’t take the place of face-to-face encounters with one another and our own four walls were closing in on us at times.
As you begin to adjust to your new normal, it is important to remember that any distressing event that leaves you feeling isolated, overwhelmed, or helpless and disrupts your normal level of functioning is defined as trauma and may have long-term effects on your mental health. For many, a return to “business as usual” may be accompanied by lingering social isolation effects.
Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health – What to Look For
The effects of social isolation on mental health are unique to each individual. You may have experienced mental health struggles in the past which have now worsened, or you may be feeling emotionally different in response to the pandemic and wondering whether this is normal and if it will pass. Here are some signs that you should take seriously:
Sleep is critical to good mental health, but a new schedule or the lack of one can cause sleep disruptions leading to grogginess, disorientation, and low mood. Keeping track of time in isolation becomes challenging. You may have asked “What day is it?” or “What time is it?” Your screen time increased with more internet searching or shopping or binge watching your favorite shows. Increased exposure to blue light suppresses your body’s production of melatonin and is associated with insomnia, tossing and turning, and even nightmares. Sleep disturbances can, in turn, cause depression and anxiety.
Prior to the global pandemic, mental health experts were discussing a serious, existing epidemic in the United States namely, loneliness, which naturally increased in our isolation. Experts tell us human connections are essential for us all to survive and thrive, but you can be lonely in a crowded room of people you know well. Loneliness stems from feeling disconnected on an emotional level and is personal in nature, so increasing social time doesn’t always solve the problem. While most of us experience loneliness in our lifetime, chronic loneliness is painful and associated with a variety of serious health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Americans are reporting more symptoms of depression related to the COVID-19 virus than prior levels and, based on research related to the SARS pandemic of 2003, those symptoms will likely persist. Low mood, fatigue, sadness, feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, suicidal thinking, and planning for suicide are all symptoms of depression, which is serious in nature and requires immediate attention.
Stress and Anxiety
Along with depressive symptoms, stress and anxiety are also on the rise since we began isolating at home, and may now have concerns about integrating back into society. Constantly feeling on the edge can disrupt your sleep, lower your immunity, elevate cortisol levels, and cause digestive issues, heart palpitations, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and diminished coping skills, among other things.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Depression, anxiety, sleep disruption and loneliness can be inter-connected and are just some effects that may linger as the quarantine begins to lift. If symptoms persist beyond four months, you may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD typically appear soon after a trauma occurs, but can develop months or years later. The trauma may be experienced personally or through someone else’s experience and can be related to feelings of isolation from loved ones or fear of access to basic needs.
How to Care For Your Mental Health During & After Social Isolation
Consider these self-care tips for lifting your mood, calming your anxiety, and improving your overall mental well-being.
Comfort foods are great, but the connection between your diet and your mental health is real. We know our bodies need high-quality “fuel” for good physical health, so it’s logical that our brains need that same good nutrition to perform cognitive functions, boost and regulate mood, and process our thoughts and emotions. It’s no surprise that highly-processed, sugary foods are not brain-friendly, but delicious foods like eggs, almonds, blueberries, fish, avocados, and dark chocolate can contribute to better mental health.
You’ve most likely spent more time on your couch in recent weeks, but humans are built for movement. In the last two generations, physical activity has dropped 32% in the United States. Experts tell us that we, as a nation, have a “sitting disease” that is just as dangerous to our health as smoking. Walking – especially in nature – benefits your physical and mental well-being. If you aren’t able to walk, simple stretching or gentle yoga yields benefits as well. Explore new types of exercise to find a variety of things you can do to activate the release of endorphins, which trigger happy feelings. Mark your calendar and make regular time for physical activity to enjoy maximum mental health benefits.
Repetitive or racing thoughts are exhausting and will take a toll on your mental health. Relaxation may feel like the last thing you can achieve when you are deeply stressed, but with a little practice, you can be successful at self-soothing. Try deep, steady breathing, meditation, sound therapy, or visualizing quiet and peaceful surroundings to calm yourself. Stay with it even when your mind begins to wander back to the worries of the day. With time and regular practice, you can find stress relief in as little as 5 to 10 minutes a day. You may find yourself developing a more extensive relaxation practice when you begin to feel the positive results.
Make Meaningful Connections
In the same way humans were built for movement, we are wired to connect to each other. While developing satisfying relationships takes a little time, the mental health rewards are worth the effort. Start by deepening the healthy, emotional connections you already have with your family members and friends. Widen your social circle by joining a class with people who share your interests. Being part of a group creates a sense of belonging and stimulates your mind with new thoughts and ideas. Volunteer with others on behalf of a cause you support, which is proven to increase feelings of happiness and decrease loneliness.
When to Seek Treatment
If you have signs of anxiety, depression, chronic loneliness, or
hopelessness, and your enjoyment of life is being negatively impacted, it’s
time to get help. Early intervention results in better mental health outcomes.
The effects of recent social isolation on mental health will continue to be felt for some time. If you are struggling, you are not alone. With professional support and a mental health treatment program, you can improve your mental wellness and enjoy life again.