Coping With Isolation

By Patrick O’Neil

The city of Los Angeles, a forerunner in the prevention of spreading the coronavirus, issued a “Stay-at-Home” order on March 19th closing all malls, gyms, concerts, sporting events, bars, and movie theaters—anywhere people congregated en masse. Seriously curtailing everyone’s ability to socialize—as that was the order’s intention—while inadvertently adding to the already abundant aura of fear. Of course essential businesses such as healthcare, grocery stores, and restaurants (the latter for delivery and take out only) were allowed to stay open, but only with social distancing and reduced hours. A week later a statewide public health order mandated residents to “quarantine in their homes,” and the entire populace of the second largest city in America were essentially stuck inside until this pandemic ran its course.  

For all the introverts this isolation seemed tailor-made. For everyone else the idea of being alone not only felt punitive, but severely separating, and even fearful. Consequently there was an abundance of very real anxiety. A virus was killing people and the only solution was an unsettling quarantine that forced the sanctity of normal every day life to no longer be the same or even safe, and worse, everyone was expected to weather this isolation apart from one and another, and without the social norm of human contact. And that’s where another big problem arose. As according to Professor of Psychology Dr. Frank McAndrew, “Humans are hardwired to interact with others, especially during times of stress. When we go through a trying ordeal alone, a lack of emotional support and friendship can increase our anxiety and hinder our coping ability.” 

Which unfortunately makes a lot of sense in real life. Because during the first few weeks of quarantine large numbers of Los Angeles residents converged on city parks and beaches as if their work furloughs were simply forced vacations and it was time to enjoy the great outdoors with a few thousand of your neighbors and friends. People just weren’t ready to “go through a trying ordeal alone.” In response City officials closed all public lands and issued warnings. The party was over. 

Yet what wasn’t being addressed was that in these trying times isolation was terrifying and as Assistant Professor Angelea Panos at Utah Valley University cautions, “Depending on your mental state prior to quarantine, it could put you at higher risk for deleterious effects. A quarantine adds on top of the previous layer of distress you already had prior to the quarantine. The limbo of not knowing how long you might have to stay isolated increases the sense of uncertainty and helplessness.” 

For anyone with mental health and/or substance abuse issues this uncertainty and helplessness affects their already compromised ability to cope and it all becomes even more disastrous. “Feeling loneliness is a psychologically destructive and terrifying experience,” warns addiction researcher Mohsen Hosseinbor, “[and that] feeling of loneliness is stronger in drug abusers.” Health and forensic psychology researcher Sarita Robinson echoes Hosseinbor’s statement in regards to those suffering from mental heath issues, “They’re also more likely to feel depressed and may have problems processing information. This in turn can lead to difficulties with decision-making and memory storage and recall.” 

Now all of this doesn’t mean that the prospect of prolonged isolation will cause the world’s populace to lose their minds to cabin fever and loneliness. But what it does caution is that when faced with uncertainty it is better to be proactive and have a plan of action rather than being docile and detached. There are many approaches that one can employ in order to safeguard their well being and mental health. The best involve staying busy and productive and exploring alternative methods to connect with people. 

Here are a few suggestions: 

Create A Routine And Keep To It: Without the routine of work and socializing that our normal every day lives inadvertently creates, many people are left to their own devises. Unfortunately that means a lot of people are struck in front of their TVs endlessly “snacking” and bored out of their minds. Creating a routine to avoid this monotony can be a lifesaver. This routine could be as simple as getting up and out of bed at a designated time, eating meals on a schedule—not just haphazard and continuously—allowing television only after dinner, regularly calling friends and family, and going to bed at the same time one normal would if they were still “going” to work. The sense of security gained from a routine can help address the immense and at times overwhelming feelings of uncertainty that this pandemic has created. 

Stay Active:Shelter-in-Home” doesn’t literally mean to never venture outside again. It means to be cautious with where and how one does go outdoors. As I said in Los Angeles all the parks and beaches have been closed. But that doesn’t mean that walking or jogging the city streets has been banned. Being safe and practicing social distancing make it feasible to get in an hour of exercise traversing your neighborhood. If that seems too dangerous, then consider yoga, aerobics, calisthenics, or free weights. Many personal trainers and yoga studios have virtual online classes and workouts. At the very least literally just standing up and moving around every twenty minutes is beneficial. “Sitting for long periods of time — when you don’t stand up, don’t move at all — tends to cause changes physiologically within your muscles,” says New York Times Phys Ed columnist Gretchen Reynolds. “You stop breaking up fat in your bloodstream, you start getting accumulations of fat … in your liver, your heart and your brain. You get sleepy. You gain weight. You basically are much less healthy than if you’re moving.” 

Communicate With Others: Thankfully technology has made it easy to stay in touch with, friends, family, and colleagues at school and work. There’s a plethora of options; phone calls, texts, social media, video conferencing, and emails. Creating and maintaining a sense of human connection dispels the affects of isolation. And recent studies suggest that video communications and conferences might be the best method to not feel so alone. Psychologist Dr. Rebecca Klott contends it’s beneficial to see the facial expressions and body language of the person you are talking to. “There’s just a deeper level of intimacy and connection that can happen on video that really can’t happen just on the telephone.” This is also an excellent time to engage in therapeutic treatment and CAST Centers is providing online treatment for mental health, addiction, and dual diagnosed. No matter the media or method the actual act of reaching out and contacting people helps in these times of stress.   

Do Something Productive and Meaningful: Everyone has wished they had time to finish a project, learn another language, reorganize their closet, or even write a book. With endeavors such as these there is no time like the present. With idle time on everyone’s hands being productive turn isolation into a meaningful experience and getting things done adds satisfaction and creates confidence in these uncertain times. Award-winning freelance writer Anne Lowrey writes, “Having a sense of purpose also contributes to a focus on intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, autonomy, and accomplishment, as opposed to external pursuits like money and status. Working toward intrinsic goals increases your self-confidence, which grows as you rise to meet challenges.” And coping with isolation in this coronavirus pandemic is certainly a challenge we should all rise to meet.  

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