Recent studies have associated social isolation and loneliness with a significantly increased risk for early death. With the arrival of COVID-19 the problem has worsened, as we have even seen suicide as a result of social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation and social distancing can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. There is significant evidence to support that social isolation can increase symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, among others. All of this is happening while we're receiving a barrage of difficult news about the pandemic itself. The wave of anxiety from the pandemic, plus the additional consequences of social isolation, can be a difficult combination. Americans will all likely experience increased social isolation and loneliness in combatting the pandemic. As a mental health professional, I am most concerned about the increased risk of anxiety and depression for some and how this can manifest into unhealthy or self-harming behaviors. Identifying this phenomenon as a public health risk and developing mitigation plans are important first steps.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health officials are asking that we continue socially distancing ourselves and shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. These directives, travel bans and recommendations to avoid nonessential travel adds another layer of isolation, because Americans are prevented from engaging socially with distant family members who are unable to connect in person. These restrictions are likely to continue for several more weeks, or even months. What can we do to reduce the threat of social isolation and loneliness as the pandemic and social restrictions continue?
1. Plan and Connect
Create an intentional plan for connection. Talk to your family and friends about a plan to safely stay in regular contact while maintaining compliance with the social distancing and shelter in place with directives. Make this plan as detailed as necessary for you, for example, identify whom you can contact if you need help with access to resources such as food, medicine, and other supplies.
Be sure to also include actual social connection into your plan. Remaining socially connected is valuable because we are social beings, this is our lifeline to support. In your plan for connection schedule routine phone calls and video conferences along with texting and emailing to help compensate for the lack of in-person contact. Spend at least 15 minutes a day talking with or writing to a loved one, the US Postal still delivers. This small amount of time can make significant differences in how connected we feel when done consistently. Now more than ever it is important for everyone to be very intentional about creating a plan where we can safely nurture relationships and stay socially connected with family, friends or any other supportive groups.
2. Find Ways to Serve Others
We can call a neighbor and check on them to make sure they're doing okay, we can drop food off to someone, we can write a note to someone to let them know we know of the tough time they are experiencing and that we're thinking of them. These are small but powerful ways in which we can seek to serve others.
3. Stay Connected with Communication and Meeting Tools
Use virtual meetings options to stay connected with friends and families. My book club is utilizing Zoom for regular check-ins to allow us to connect with one another; we have a blast. I connect with various family members and friends through FaceTime; we laugh and have a great time.
4. Keep Your Immune System Strong
Washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds (the length of 2 rounds of Happy Birthday)
Use tissue to cover your sneeze or cough, or cough into your elbow
Disinfect with anti-bacterial wipes or sprays
Avoid contact with those who are sick
Avoid touching your face-eyes, nose, and mouth
Stay home when you are sick
Get enough of sleep
Eat well and stay hydrated
Do not smoke and limit alcohol intake-both weaken your immune system
Take vitamins if you have any deficiencies
5. Engage in Activities that Benefit your Well-Being
Do your best to limit your stress levels and engage in activities that help manage your stress levels during this challenging time such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.
Some of my clients schedule weekly tele-therapy sessions as a part of their plan for connections (this is a social contact as well as a wellness contact).
6. Exercise and Stay Active
This is good for physical and mental health. Although your favorite gym is closed, what do you have available to you in your home or neighborhood. Walking, stretching, yoga, or whatever works best for you to reduce or alleviate stress and increase endorphins. Also, many gyms and fitness experts are offering free livestreams or app-based workouts for members and non-members.
7. Get Fresh Air
Whenever possible go outside for a brisk walk and fresh air, while maintaining the social distancing requirements. Also, it is officially spring, get outside to do some gardening, or just go outside to sit and be with nature; this is nurturing to your physical and spiritual self. Being outside provide lots of vitamin D which is helpful for our immune system health as well as providing an opportunity to remind us to be grateful for what has been created to help maintain our existence.
8. Monitor Warning Signs and Triggers
Maintain self-awareness, pay attention to changes in old symptoms and be self-aware of new symptoms. If your symptoms change contact your existing provider or you have new symptoms and need to initiate mental health services contact a mental health provider.
9. Continue or Initiate Mental Health Therapy or Medication
Despite changes in our routine, it is important to continue your already existing mental health treatment. Also, if you are not currently connected with a mental health professional but feel you can benefit from this service please contact a mental health professional to schedule an appointment. Teletherapy services are growing in availability, several insurance companies are waiving copays and deductibles and tele-therapy is a valuable way of staying connected with the care that you need.
10. Get Creative
I challenge you to become creative with ways to prevent loneliness and social isolation. I have provided some ideas for staying connected, but I challenge you to identify other ways to stay socially connected, plan a google hangout. Do things that you don't get to do in your daily life. Also, be mindful of those that you know who are at a higher risk of social isolation. Using the links provided below or tapping into your own creativity, go deeper in finding and creating ways to decrease any feelings of social isolation or loneliness, the sky’s limit. Utilize the following links as a starting place:
COVID-19 and Social Isolation Resources:
Article-How to stay connected while intentionally isolated? Link
Mental Health And COVID-19 – Information and Resources:
We can easily find many reasons why this situation is bad, and I am by no means indicating that it is great. But life is all about what we make of it. It is easy to find to the negativity in our current situation. However, it is more helpful and challenging to find ways to be positive, to be grateful about all that is going right in our World. A lot of times clients think that my life is all together, but I experience the same challenges that you all experience. The difference is how we handle the cards we are dealt; I play to win. I could easily crawl into a dark place due to the many ways that the pandemic is affecting me and my family’s life, but I choose to see the brighter side of things. You can do the same thing; it is very basic and simple, the fact that we rose today was our first reason to be grateful. I am sure as your day continues you can easily find others; make a mental note or journal these experiences.
We are in this together, reach out to me and my team if we can help you overcome any challenges that you are facing during this time of crisis.
Stay Well, Be Empower, Live Boldly and Fully!!