Why are we social distancing?
Although lockdown measures have been lifted in some states, restrictions remain in place across the country. As we know, the World Health Organization strongly advises anyone who demonstrates any symptoms of the COVID-19 virus to self-isolate for 7 to 14 days, regardless of what state laws mandate. This means anyone with a fever and dry, tickly cough should separate themselves from others to reduce spreading and prevent the overwhelming of health services.
Similarly, those who spend time with vulnerable people or those who have reported symptoms are required to quarantine for 14 days; this is to separate and restrict movement of people who have been exposed to the virus in case they develop symptoms and require isolation.
Furthermore, all people are expected to practice social distancing in areas that have removed the full lockdown conditions. This entails not meeting with groups of people and staying at least 6 feet away from and not hugging, kissing or touching others whom you do not live with. Whatever your current state laws are, this marks a dramatic lifestyle change for most of us.
How does isolation affect those with depression?
The spread of the virus has moved at a considerable pace, with global numbers close to 4 million infected with COVID-19. Consequently, we have been asked to stay inside our homes, and strict measures have been set in place in the US, UK France, Spain, and countries in South America and Asia, and violation of these mandates are punishable by fines and enforced by the police.
While this may have initially come as welcome news to those who lead busy lives and welcomed time away from airports, train stations and busy offices, there are many who rely on social contact to remain positive and cope with pre-existing depression while in isolation. For others, the time in isolation may begin to affect their psychological wellbeing, leading to symptoms of depression such as:
- Loss of interest in things that previously gave them pleasure
- Chronic fatigue, inability to sleep, or restlessness
- More frequent and unexpected feelings of tearfulness
- Lack of appetite, or increased, unsatisfiable appetite
These symptoms can range from mild, leaving the person feeling low or irritable, to severe, leading a person to feel like life is no longer worth living. It can be difficult to recognize the point at which symptoms shift from being understandable, temporary reactions to this period of uncertainty into dangerous, life-threatening thought patterns. Those in isolation must be vigilant of their feelings and put structures in place to mitigate its impact on their mental health and psychological functioning.
As noted by Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and an associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health, “[b]ecause social contact is such a fundamental human need, we suffer both mentally and physically without it.”
What can those who are suffering from depression do?
Isolated people are likely to experience a range of emotions as they adjust to a new way of living, which can be exhausting and leave some feeling unable to cope with an ever-changing set of rules that prevent them from doing the things they used to enjoy.
Here are some key ways to avoid or minimize depression during this frightening time of social and physical withdrawal:
Enhance your immune system
While the predicted period of social distancing is not enough to do any permanent damage to a person’s immune system, research on the impact of loneliness indicates that physical health problems can result from a lack of human contact. This has been evidenced in elderly people who are unable to leave their homes due to a lack of mobility and who were found to be more susceptible to serious illnesses like heart disease.
While self-isolation is only required for 7 days, the length of time that many are unable to leave their homes could extend into months. It is therefore important to boost your immune system by incorporating a well-balanced diet and at least 30 minutes of exercise into your daily routine.
Structure your day and stay organized
It can be incredibly unsettling to have a routine disrupted, particularly if you have suffered from depression in the past and rely on predictability to manage symptoms. It is therefore important to structure a realistic and manageable routine that will provide purpose, reduce anxiety and allow focus. Organized living spaces can help thought patterns follow suit and reduce the risk of staying glued to sensationalistic news channels that overload the brain with fear-inducing coverage.
Maintain social connections
An isolated person may find it challenging to get the comfort and support they need from others when they feel anxious, panicky, or depressed. According to Stephen Ilardi, PhD, author of The Depression Cure and associate professor of Psychology at The University of Kansas, “social withdrawal amplifies the brain’s stress response, and social contact helps put the brakes on it.”
While it may not be possible to physically be with family or friends, it is easy to regularly use online platforms such as Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp, or Google Hangout to see and speak to loved ones and maintain social contact.
Reframe the situation
During this chaotic period, it is common to feel anger, sadness, and frustration about the things we can no longer do, but if we accept our losses, we can redirect our focus to the possibilities that lie ahead. We have the opportunity to slow down, notice the things we didn’t have the time to before, and reconnect with ourselves while we are physically disconnected from others.
Heather R Hayes & Associates Inc. can provide support for those experiencing depression in isolation
There may be times when it is a challenge to maintain a schedule or organize a video call, and that’s all right. It is important to remember that it’s normal to feel low sometimes, but if symptoms worsen and you need support, contact Heather R Hayes & Associates Inc. as soon as possible and use our Telehealth services that we have adapted to provide high quality support to those who are unable to leave their homes.
 theconversation.com/coronavirus-self-isolation-a-psychologist-explains-how-to-avoid-cabin-fever-133317 (accessed 22/3/2020)
 https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/05/29/the-dangers-of-a-lonely-heart (accessed 22/3/2020)
 https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/depression-traps-and-pitfalls#1 (accessed 22/3/2020)