With the COVID-19 (aka novel coronavirus) pandemic spreading across the globe, health organizations and world leaders are calling on individuals to maintain good hygiene, practice social distancing and stay at home. While protecting the physical health of ourselves and loved ones may be a top priority, attention should also be given to the mental health ramifications of the current situation. For many, a major component weighing on their well-being is the isolation they are experiencing, as they remain alone with their own thoughts.
What is it about isolation that makes us so anxious? The answer appears to be multi-layered, touching, among other things, on distressing thoughts and beliefs, emotional regulation and the social roles we identify with.
Distressing Cognitive Content
In the rush of normal, everyday life, we don’t always have the time to consider the thoughts that pass through our minds. This is a common reason why we can be taken aback on the rare occasion when we are faced with our thoughts, during periods where we have less to distract us from them. Psychologically speaking, a distressing thought can shake us due to how out of the ordinary it is. According to psychoanalysis, our mind uses different psychological mechanisms, also referred to as defense mechanisms, to sweep the most distressing thoughts we have below our state of consciousness.
During times of extreme stress, like the current coronavirus pandemic, our defenses are already working overtime in an effort to help us handle the destabilizing factors introduced into our lives. Additionally, as many individuals living alone find themselves devoid of company throughout the day, distressing thoughts that cause symptoms of depression or anxiety-related conditions can begin to appear.
The type of adverse thoughts during a health crisis can be diverse in content, frequency and intensity. One person concerned for their physical survival might react by trying to calculate the number of perishable items they will need to survive the next week, month, or several months, as their concern over this matter starts to take over their thinking. An independent business owner might focus their attention on the accumulating bills and loss of income. Someone caring for elderly parents might find themselves worried they will be cut off from their paid caretakers, on whom they depend for their medication and grocery shopping.
These thoughts and many others can begin to deplete our mental reserves, and as a result cause us a great deal of anxiety. Normally, when faced with a distressing situation, we might look for something to distract ourselves or an active way to solve the problem, through an activity or interaction with someone else. But with limited options and so much time on our hands, protecting ourselves against the coronavirus could mean facing a daily influx of adverse thoughts, which can have a detrimental effect on our overall state of mind.
In addition to the way we think, the way we feel plays a key role in our sense of well-being. The two realms shape one another, as our thinking can frame the way we feel, and our emotions activate our established thought patterns.
Emotional regulation is one such intersection between thoughts and feelings. As we attempt to make sense of the emotions that a certain experience has raised within us, our mind uses the way we think to give our feelings context. For example, someone feeling a surge of anxiety might explain it to themselves as deriving from reading about the coronavirus continuing to spread across the globe, which increases their chance of infection. This can help them make sense of what they are feeling. If they are living with someone close to them, they may also choose to spend some time together, as a way to feel less alone with their own fears.
During self-isolation, though, many are being deprived of this basic form of support, by literally being separated from the people they care about. Adding to that is the fact that almost all our in-person interactions have been removed from our daily lives, so that even stopping by a local store on the way home is not presently possible. Instead, we are left with our own concerns, and plenty of time to over-analyze them. As a result, stressors that would have normally dissipated through our interactions with others continue to bother us, as we focus our more of our attention on them.
Who Am I Without You
The social roles we play make up a significant aspect of the ways we view ourselves and how we determine our own self-worth. In fact, many people find it difficult to let go of some of our roles in life, such as their child’s protector, as both parties grow up and the dynamics of their relationship changes.
Our social roles are another aspect in our lives that can be shaken up due to the corona pandemic. For example, under the current restrictions, older parents are strongly urged to remain at home. While this can be a life-saving necessity, it can also have a destabilizing effect, by sending many older individuals into a state of insecurity and low self-esteem; if I can’t help my own kid, they might think, what good am I anymore?
Such thoughts can be detrimental to a person’s well-being and make their time in isolation harder to cope with. From being seen as a rock by their loved ones, an individual might imagine themselves becoming a burden on others, which can be a very difficult transition to make. And again, with more time on their hands, the loss of a social role can be that much more distressing.
Since the reality of self-isolation can bring with it all of the above difficulties, it is especially important that we emphasize communication, on all levels and directions. Learning how to handle your own thoughts, feelings and life changes can be a feat in its own right, particularly when so much around us has been thrown into uncertainty. Give yourself time to adjust, and then readjust to your still-changing routine. Additionally, reach out virtually to those who might need your support, and see how you can build your own lines of communication with them, through whatever options that are still available. Finally, seeking professional assistance, through online networks and the recommendations of those you trust, could add to your own support system, as we all try to understand how to make our way through these unfamiliar circumstances.