As we continue to practice ‘social distancing’ during this difficult time in managing the fallout of COVID-19, fear and anxiety surrounding our physical health has greatly increased for many of us. Such thoughts as – What if I or someone in my family gets the virus? How am I going to pay my bills with being out of work for who knows how long? When will I be able to see my friends and family in person again? – are just some examples of what many of us have been thinking. These thoughts, coupled with the toll isolating at home alone can take on one’s mental health, can often work together to create much stress, fear, uncertainty, loneliness and anxiety that can all worsen with each passing day. My hope in writing this article is to provide clear and factual information on what ‘social distancing’ and isolation can do to one’s mental health during this time and provide useful and effective tips on how to stay mentally healthy though this situation.
How Does ‘Social Distancing’ and Isolation Effect Our Mental Health?
We all know how it feels to be stuck inside on a rainy Saturday. We had plans to see our friends or family, had plans to go play golf, read a book at the park, do some gardening or go to the beach, but, even if it stops raining and is just ‘gloomy’ outside, we often feel lethargic and, simply, ‘bummed out.’ We stay inside for the whole day, are upset and may even just want to be alone and watch TV in our bedroom. But what about when one ‘rainy day’ turns into ten, twenty, or thirty days ‘stuck inside’ like we have been instructed to do during the COVID-19 situation? What happens to us then?
Perhaps the most common thought and fear surrounding the COVID-19 situation that I have heard, not only from clients, but friends and via messages on social media, is the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Questions such as – ‘When is this (I.e. ‘social distancing’ and quarantining at home) going to end!? and ‘What if this NEVER ends?’ have been asked by many (many times to oneself), producing great stress and anxiety. In my work as a counsellor specializing in stress, anxiety and low-mood, I often talk to my clients about ‘What If’s.’ Anxiety, while often acting as a healthy human feeling that motivates us to carry out the many duties daily life requires of us, can often increase above ‘healthy levels’ during stressful and uncertain times. When anxious, over such and uncertain and rare situation like COVID-19, our brain makes an attempt to calm itself by attempting to ‘figure out’ or predict the future… in other words, it tries to create certainty to rid itself of the feelings uncertainty brings… stress, fear, anxiety and low-mood. This, in turn, can cause us to take part in what are referred to, in cognitive psychology, as ‘Distorted Thinking’ or ‘Cognitive Distortions’ (more on this later!).These are immediate, irrational and false thoughts that continue one’s cycle of anxiety. By not having a defined time period in which ‘social distancing’ and ‘isolation’ will end, many of us will experience increased stress and anxiety during this time.
While most of us will feel lonely during the COVID-19 situation, a certain segment of the population is at more of a risk to experiencing more serious and intense levels of loneliness and low-mood during this time of ‘social isolation.’ These populations include the already unemployed (prior to COVID-19), low-income and/or homeless, minorities (E.g. LGTBQ+ community) and, most notably, the elderly. As these groups are marginalized, many within them do not have as vast of a social network as others in society do and/or do not feel as ‘included’ in society as others. They may have less friendships, limited family to connect with or inadequate access to technology (E.g. A smartphone for video chatting). This is not to say that only those members of these groups can feel extreme loneliness from being socially isolated due to COVID-19, as anyone can be susceptible to feeling intense loneliness and low-mood due to this situation. For example, many who have been temporarily laid off may feel a sense of despair and identity, which may contribute greatly to feelings of loss and confusion, similar to that of grieving the death of a friend, for example.
A common joke that has been made by many since we have been advised to spend as much time at home as possible during the COVID-19 situation is that ‘were definitely going to see the divorce rate go up with couples being stuck home together 24 hours a day!’While we may see an uptick in the divorce rate by the end of this situation (which will most likely be due to stress and not partners coming to ‘hate each other’), this does not mean that all couples will see their partnership deteriorate. Couples should take this time as an opportunity to not just ‘make up for missed time’ due to busy work schedules and the responsibilities of adult life, but to reconnect and support one another through these stressful and unprecedented times. When faced with adversity, relationships don’t necessarily crumble, but a true bond can take place making the relationship even stronger than before.
A Side Note… Dating
Another concern for many right now is how they will manage dating a partner they had just met, whether it be in person prior to social distancing, or online since social distancing began. It can be incredibly frustrating to be so excited that you have connected with someone new, especially when you can see a possible future with the person, but even more so when you cannot see them until social distancing comes to an end… which is even more stressful as there is no defined ‘end date’ to it as of yet. I think perspective in these instances is incredibly important. Imagine this was the year 1995… no dating apps, no video chatting technology, no smart phones and no unlimited long distance ‘talk and text.’ If we remind ourselves how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to date at all during this time, to message, to hear and to see someone who is becoming important to us can not only allow one to keep building a connection, but a unique one where you can be each other’s ‘get away’ from the stressors of each day. Plus, what a story it would be if you met a special person you connect with during an extremely rare pandemic? I think, a pretty cool one. And if you’re single and wanting to date, but this situation is making you feel lonely and apprehensive, give online dating a chance. Single people have more free time than they ever have in their adult lives right now and are wanting to connect with others… with the only option being online!
What You Can Do Right Now to Begin Feeling Better
As simple as it sounds, keeping a routine is very important to one’s mental health, not only during such a unique and unwanted time as the COVID-19 situation, but when ‘regular’ life resumes. What may seem like simple and required daily tasks, like grooming and ‘getting dressed for the day,’ for example, such things can easily become less of a priority during times like we are experiencing now. We aren’t‘required’ to get dressed to go to work, brush our hair or shower each day while obeying social distancing, but continuing to do such things signals to our brains that we value ourselves and, in actuality, keeps our brains from getting too overwhelmed with ‘messy’ thoughts. When ourselves, and our environment (E.g. an untidy home office desk, a disorganized bedroom and a sink full of dirty dishes), are ‘messy,’ our thoughts and feelings can become that way as well. I suggest using a simple wall calendar, or the agenda usually used for our work schedule, schedule to your day into blocks of time and stick to it (Tip – Search ‘time blocking’ on YouTube!). Even if this sounds or feels silly, you will be surprised how much keeping a routine will fend off any extra stress or anxiousness that this added time spent at home can bring.
Before jumping to any conclusions about what you may think about ‘mindfulness meditation’ (as it was commonly known before its rise in popularity), mindfulness has become a popular practice for a reason… because it works!In my practice, I choose to not use the word ‘meditation’ when talking about mindfulness because mindfulness can be practiced literally anytime, even when ‘stuck at home’ with others present. Mindfulness truly is as simple as ‘being in the present moment.’ I’ve found the easiest way to explain how one practices mindfulness is how a professional athlete gets into ‘the zone.’ When Michael Jordan was in the zone, literally nothing else mattered in the world. Not personal issues at home, an injury he was playing through, and not what may come tomorrow, the only thing that mattered was that exact moment in time and being fully engaged in playing basketball. Mindfulness can be sitting in a quiet room and focusing on one’s breath, but it can also be becoming fully engaged in an extremely likeable and interesting activity. Whether it’s playing basketball, painting a picture, playing a song on a guitar or teaching your dog new tricks, whatever it is that you’re passionate about that takes your complete and undivided attention, do it when your thoughts become negative, when you feel anxiety rising, when you’re feeling stressed or when your mood is low. Practicing mindfulness can almost immediately change how you are feeling and viewing the world during hard moments, such as those you’re likely to experience during the COVID-19 situation.
Another Side Note… ‘Distorted Thinking’
As mentioned earlier, cognitive distortions, or ‘distorted thinking,’ the irrational and false thoughts the creep into one’s mind in times of stress, anxiety and uncertainty, can certainly take their toll on ones mood during such times as these. These types of thoughts are often talked about in a form of therapy/counselling called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).In this practice, a clinician helps a client overcome feelings of anxiety and low-mood by helping them not only recognize when they are having negative/’distorted thoughts,’ but how the feelings and behaviours, in response to those thoughts and feelings, are also connected. A simple tool one can use is called thought stopping. Start by doing a simple Google search for ‘cognitive distortions’ and print off one of the many lists of the different ‘types’ of distorted thinking. Study this list and practice recognizing when you take part in these types of thoughts (E.g. ‘Catastrophizing’ – predicting or making something into a catastrophe – E.g. ‘COVID-19 will just make everyone sick and I’ll never get back to work and I will lose my house!’– when such a situation will most likely not be the case).Mentally picture a STOP sign and move your focus elsewhere.
Seek the Help of a Professional Counsellor/Therapist
Simply put, we sometimes just cannot handle such stressful and unprecedented situations, such as the one we currently find ourselves in due to COVID-19 and social distancing. Even for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to spend our time ‘stuck at home’ with family and chatting via video with friends, these may not be enough to help many of us maintain our mental health. With the focus being on assisting our first responders in any way possible during this time (due to the highly stressful situations they are being placed in daily), it is understandable why these people may be in need of care and support for their mental health. But even if you aren’t one of these courageous first responders, none of us are immune to the toll stress, fear, anxiety, loneliness and low-mood can take on us during such difficult situationsas COVID-19. Counsellors and therapists, like myself, are making themselves available via video chat, phone and/or personal messaging at this time and can be of great help when feeling the ways previously mentioned. Many practitioners are providing services at low/compassionate rates and are highly skilled in helping others manage stress filled and uncertain situations like most of us are experiencing now. These services are 100% private and confidential and are provided by people who truly care!
Jordon is a counsellor and coach at Brant Mental Health Solutions,located at 139 Grand River St. N. in Paris, Ontario. Jordon holds a Master of Arts in Counselling, is a Certified Coach Practitioner and is currently working under the supervision of a Registered Social Worker. Jordon specializes in helping clients manage stress, overcome anxiety, low mood, interpersonal issues and difficult life transitions.