As COVID 19 continues to linger across our nation, the effects of the virus are becoming clear. While the physical toll the virus takes on those afflicted is obvious, we are starting to see how quarantine and “shelter in place” orders have affected people in a myriad of different ways. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am most concerned as a clinical psychologist about how the fallout of COVID-19 will impact us emotionally. There has never been another moment in our lifetime that has been wrought with such collective uncertainty. And the unpredictable nature of our world and future is exactly why we are primed to be intensely reactive in our emotional lives. I can say without reservation that during the last 4 months our clinic has seen more people seeking treatment for mental health issues and addiction than any other time in our 15 year history.
But don’t take my word for it. Just browse the internet for a few minutes and you will quickly see that the stress is mounting in what feels like a pressure cooker of COVID emotional consequences. I was struck early on in this crisis by the words of many of the people that were quarantined on the cruise ship that had identified several COVID positive passengers. One woman who was quarantined for 14 days on the ship said, “Now I know what an inmate must feel like,” as she described what it was like to be stuck on the boat with infected passengers. What a striking way to express how the social isolation and lack of control over our own destiny of quarantine and social distancing dramatically affects our emotional functioning.
These negative consequences of our current situation aren’t just anecdotal, they are actually well researched facts. A recent analysis of multiple research studies on quarantine and social distancing demonstrated that there is indeed a high prevalence of symptoms of psychological distress connected to these measures sometimes after only 10 days of isolation. The study directly linked quarantine to general psychological symptoms, increased depression and stress, low mood, high levels of anger and irritability, insomnia, and even symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s even more concerning is that the social isolation we are currently experiencing can exacerbate emotional problems or addictions that have been previously diagnosed and treated. That means there are many people, who have a history of a mental health or addictive issue, that will see their symptoms resurface as a result of the chronic stress of the social distancing situation. Now that restrictions are lifting in some areas, we might believe that all these emotional issues will subside. Don’t count on it. The research has demonstrated that many people who suffer emotionally as a result of quarantine and social distancing can continue to struggle for up to 3 years after the measures have been lifted.
When we take a look at the facts regarding the emotional consequences of quarantine it’s easy to get stuck on an intuitive question: “Why does this isolation impact our emotions in such dramatic ways?” While I’m sure there are a multitude of explanations that we consider that are potentially part of the etiology of the emotional consequences of quarantine, I believe the emotional issues many people are experiencing are a natural result of disconnection from other people. We are built for relationships, to know and be known by others. That’s one of the primary motivations for our lives and it is consistently linked with well-being, happiness, satisfaction, and contentment. You just can’t replace interpersonal interaction as a vital part of what it means to be human. We literally crave relating to others on a cellular level and quarantine strips us of the ability to do just that. Now, I’m happy to tell you there is hope that we can deal with all the emotional chaos caused by social isolation! Here is my simple recommendation that we can all employ to help mitigate the effects of our efforts to deal with COVID.
Do whatever is necessary to maintain connection with others
The research on those who handle stressful situations effectively is consistent in regard to the mitigating effect of social support. When we are able to connect with others in a meaningful way, even if it is in a different manner than we are accustomed, the stress of a COVID induced emotional reaction is greatly reduced. In other words, we all have to do whatever we have to do to look for creative ways to meaningfully be in relationships with others. I don’t think traditional social media is the answer here, mostly because of the negative tone of much of the interaction on most social media platforms. I do believe digital solutions like Facetime and Zoom are great at helping people feel connected in real relationships that are virtual. So Make it a point to Facetime your grandchildren a couple times a week. Do a Zoom party with friends from your social circle or with extended family. While it might feel a little weird at first, these virtual environments are actually great ways to mimic the benefits of physical interaction with others. You can see facial expression and read body language. You can even read the emotion in the virtual room based on how people are responding on the video chat. It’s really a quite effective way to feel connected once you get over the initial shock of the 2-dimensional nature of the video.
In response to the clear need for support for people who want to decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, I have personally developed a digital platform called LiveWell Coaching (for more information go to LiveWell-Coaching.com). LiveWell Coaching is an App (iPhone and Android) based program that connects users with a real person who provides access to healthy content focusing on managing stress and interpersonal support through private messaging, phone calls, and video conferencing. Our team at LiveWell has seen people benefit greatly from the relationship they build with their coach. Close to 80% of our users report improved relationships and close to 70% have maintained the wellness and mental health goals they have established with their LiveWell Coach. I’m not telling you about LiveWell to toot my own horn, but just to tell you that I have seen how beneficial it has been for our users to connect with someone in a supportive relationship during this crazy moment of disconnection.
You don’t have to use LiveWell to connect with a supportive relationship to help you manage the emotional symptoms brought on by COVID, but I do encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional in some way if you feel like you are experiencing symptoms like chronic stress, depression, or anxiety. Many practitioners are now providing virtual therapy sessions as a result of the unique situations created by quarantine. One study, in particular, has greatly encouraged me in regard to the value of pursuing therapy during and after quarantine. It showed that mental health problems at four to six months after release from quarantine and social isolation might be prevented by providing mental health support to individuals. That’s great news for anyone struggling with their emotional reaction to COVID. In short, please know that there is hope going forward. We all just have to make sure that we do whatever is necessary to maintain connection with others that is supportive and encouraging. Remember: We will get through this together!