How quarantining and social distancing are affecting mental health

Mar 19 2020, 2:59 pm

People across the world are making efforts to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread by self-isolating, social distancing, and quarantining, but there could be mental health implications from spending this time alone, according to a registered psychologist.

In a phone interview with Daily Hive, psychologist Dr. Joti Samra said that while taking time away from people is the most rational thing to do right now, isolation has the potential to cause a number of inadvertent effects.

Samra said because of the way people are experiencing stress collectively, social connections are even more important. We need that “ability for us to share our emotional stress with another person, to be able to have that emotional pain validated, to be able to have someone to bounce our thoughts off of,” and not to feel “alone in our minds.”

Certain groups of people in isolation, such as the elderly and those already dealing with depression issues, face the potential of having their psychological health affected, she said.

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“As human beings, we’re fundamentally social creatures, and our social connections are critical to living a psychologically healthy life – and even a physically long life.”

“Look at babies, for example. We can have all of these fundamental needs met of shelter and food, but the absence of human touch can lead babies to die, and we use this medical term called ‘failure to thrive,’ which means that we don’t have any other explanation of why you die. It’s not for a physical reason, but we know lack of touch can lead to that,” Samra said.

“Conversely, we know for the elderly, the presence of social connections and another person helps people live longer, we recover from disease faster, we experience less pain,” she said.

Samra said people can get into a depressed state when isolated.

“Would we say that 14 days alone is going to leave someone to just get depression out of the blue? The answer is no.” However, “the answer depends. Let’s say that somebody is already in a low-mood state, then that could add another layer.”

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It’s not just the isolation, according to Samra, it’s isolation combined with how active people are, how people are thinking, and how people are utilizing that time.

“All of those can buffer against isolation. So the message also is, sure, someone could have depression and be isolated and still do very good things being confined, but they’re just having to be more intentional and creative with what those things are.”

“Stay socially connected and leverage technology”

Samra recommends video calling to stay socially connected with loved ones.

“It can be a way that we can simulate some of that contact, different than being in person… It allows us to still have the same elements that we know in-person contact helps, which is that sharing about emotional pain, speaking, talking, be validated, being able to get the things in your head out to another person.”

“Be thoughtful about your thinking”

Describing it as “reframing” one’s outlook on the situation, “when we think of our thoughts and the way that we interpret things and perceive things are critical, and we know that our perception becomes our reality.”

“If our fundamental thought is ‘I am isolated and this feels like prison and it’s awful,” Samra said, “that leads to a whole bunch of emotional impacts and what we know is we have to focus on things within our control,” adding this technique is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

“If we can say ‘you know, this is unfortunate, I’m thankful that I’m healthy and I’m going to do the best that I can given the situation’ there’s a reframe of the same situation and we can already see how that second reframe emotionally doesn’t make us feel as negative,” Samra said.

“Have a gratitude mindset.”

Be creative

Samra recommends looking at the time alone as an opportunity to be creative, such as bringing back old hobbies, for example, “your guitar that you haven’t played,” or use it as an opportunity to get things done in the household: clean or organize that paperwork you’ve been putting off.

Stay active

Creating a home-base fitness routine is another way of feeling good. Samra said, “if we’re staying physically active, that is good for our mental health.”

Samra suggested getting creative with household items to create ‘weights’ if you don’t have any at home, for example, heavy cans or jugs. “We have a term for it — ‘Behavioural Activation’ — it releases positive, feel-good hormones.”

Serenity prayer

“Have the courage to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” Samra said.

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“No emotion is a bad emotion right now,” Samra said, explaining she’s seeing a range of emotions with clients right now. “Sadness to loneliness, to fear and anxiety to anger,” adding, “all of this is normal.”

During this time of self-isolation and quarantining, Samra is asking everyone to take a shared responsibility of being extra attentive to those most vulnerable.

If you do feel anxious or depressed, Samra recommends calling mental health services in your community to find out what support is available right now, as well as going to her website MyWorkplaceHealth, where there is new content being added surrounding mental health and the coronavirus.