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How to Prevent Damage Caused by Social Isolation

Don't let the COVID-19 situation cause psychological damage.

A guest post by Maggie Kimberl.

The United States now leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases, which has led to social distancing measures intended to stop the spread. For most people in the United States, this means only going into public for absolute needs, which is typically limited to groceries once a week. These measures are temporary, but temporary could be a long time in some places. Isolation can lead to serious health problems in the long run, so it’s imperative we all do our best to look after our mental health during these trying times.

Social Isolation Can Be Harmful

In the long term, there is some evidence that extreme social isolation can contribute to the development of heart disease, increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and other serious health conditions. The stress of isolation raises cortisol levels, which can raise blood pressure and A1C levels in the long term. Mental strain can have a real and measurable effect on your physiology. Even short periods of isolation can lead to depression in a matter of days.

For those who already struggle with mental health issues, the new rules of social distancing can exacerbate their symptoms and knock existing treatment off track:

  • Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder could find symptoms exacerbated by new handwashing recommendations
  • Those with existing anxiety conditions could find an exacerbation of their feeling of uncertainty, leading to an increased feeling of a lack of control

But even if you don't typically struggle with mental health issues, this sustained period of social distancing will place a strain on everyone. For those who are on the front lines of the pandemic, from medical workers to grocery store and restaurant workers, stress levels are twofold because of the stress of the danger they are in every day plus the added strain of social distancing. Those who are fortunate enough to be sheltering at home will still feel significant stress, however. It's important to practice gratitude on a daily basis and remind yourself you're not alone.

Adjusting To The New Normal In Healthy Ways

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Make a plan to call a few people each day to check in, even if you aren’t a phone person. Get out of your house and go for a walk once a day or more if possible, and be sure to talk with your neighbors, from a safe distance of course, whenever you encounter them. Maintaining connections with the people around you is crucial at this time.

There are also many ways to structure your time at home so that you aren’t making your situation any harder than it has to be:

  • If you are working from home, avoid working in places where you would normally sleep or relax. Try to create a dedicated work area so you can still leave work at work.
  • Start a new cleaning routine. Because we’re home more there are going to be more messes to clean up, so be sure to do the dishes daily and spot clean the rest of your house more frequently. Clutter and messes can add to your stress, and even 10 minutes of cleaning can give you a sense of control over your situation.
  • Change out of your pajamas every day to give yourself a clear-cut distinction between sleeping and waking hours.
  • Exercise daily—it’s a great stress reliever!

We’re All in This Together

Don’t lose sight of the fact that social distancing is meant to flatten the curve, and if you're at home remind yourself you're not stuck at home, you're safe at home. If you are still struggling, seek additional help through meditation apps or even telehealth therapy options, which have even been opened up to many Medicare and Medicaid patients. Learn more about preserving your mental health during quarantine here.