How Social Distancing Can Affect Your Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a global health and economic crisis. This has led to countries scrambling to set nationally-binding regulations for the general public in an effort to protect their safety. But as the necessary self-isolation policies are put in place, social distancing effects are now being reported by mental health scientists around the world. The studies in this field have been calling for adjustments to be made, in order to best respond to present and future ramifications caused by the coronavirus crisis. Read on to discover their conclusions and recommendations.

Woman wearing a protective mask looking out the window

The Mental Health Effects of Required Solitary Living

Isolation has been shown to cause a number of serious mental health conditions. Among them, symptoms relating to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder seem to prevail as three of the more common issues to arise under such situations.

Corona and Anxiety

One of the more common mental health families, anxiety-centered disorders, have become even more widespread under COVID-19. Specifically, the requisite social distancing that has been implemented worldwide has enhanced the prominence of these conditions. Although social distancing is done to save lives, it can also induce agoraphobia or social anxiety due to its emphasis on the health risks of socialization. OCD-related catastrophic thinking can also increase in rate and intensity due to social distancing as individuals with ample time on their hands ruminate over the possibility of contracting the coronavirus from even casual contact with others. 

Disorders concerning social interactions can become more prominent in the future after regulations become less rigid and allow for certain in-person meetings. Those who have spent months implementing social distancing for their personal health and the health of those around them may continue to carry feelings of distress that any contact may bring about a serious illness, particularly if a vaccine has yet to be developed.

Corona and Depression

Depression, and the sense of emptiness that is experienced by those affected by it, has also been reported due to COVID-19-related social distancing. Self-isolation, mandatory quarantine, and anxiety over matters of health and economic stability can make way for (or exist with) symptoms of depression. Alone with their thoughts, feelings of helplessness under social distancing have been reported to increase as individuals become overwhelmed with loneliness and begin to lose hope that things will improve in the foreseeable future.

A study from 2004 echoed this sentiment, noting that removing participants from their normal routines and placing them in quarantine due to a SARS outbreak increased the prevalence of their distressing thoughts. This in turn caused an increase in the prevalence and severity of symptoms of depression they experienced while in isolation.

Corona and PTSD

As stated above, social distancing may focus one’s attention on the helplessness, loneliness, and hopelessness they are experiencing. In addition to depression and anxiety over future social situations, another disorder is likely to become more common, post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. This condition causes symptoms like adverse hyperarousal, anxiety, anhedonia, decreased mood, flashbacks, and intrusive thinking, all of which are triggered by an extremely destabilizing event. 

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) from 2013 requires that a fully traumatic experience, such as a natural disaster, take place for a PTSD diagnosis to be considered. While the coronavirus pandemic has not been directly linked to widespread prevalent acts of violence, the resulting chaos and global upheaval could meet the requisite “traumatic event” clause of this disorder.

A meta-analysis from 2020 found this to be likely, comparing the mental health ramification of the coronavirus emergency to previous situations necessitating quarantine. The study found a significant rise in PTSD prevalence, in addition to higher rates of anger and confusion among participants. Among other factors, the results were linked to extended periods of self-isolation and social distancing. Its conclusions point to the alarming possibility of an uptick in PTSD cases both during and following the social distancing taking place under COVID-19.

Woman sitting at a desk leaning her head to hands

Isolation’s Effects Regarding All Three Conditions

A 2020 study on the specific social distancing effects of COVID-19 revealed an increase in anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms due to this pandemic.

This qualitative study, which analyzed participant responses, revealed four major themes:

  • Loss: The study cited a loss of motivation, meaning, and self-worth, all of which are linked to depression. Other themes of loss such as a loss of routine and financial stability have been associated with anxiety-linked stressors.
  • Distrusting the Government: This issue, which is linked to paranoia and several disorders in the anxiety family, targets how the participants feel about the social distancing and isolation guidelines issued by the government. 
  • Noticing Others Breaking Social Distancing Requirements: Participants reported that while they personally tend to adhere to government-sanctioned social distancing, many of those around them do not follow the same rules. 

Uncertainty of the Future: This point was repeatedly raised over the return to a more “integrated” society once the necessity for social distancing has passed. A significant number of participants reported experiencing concern over future interactions with other individuals, be it casual or more intimate physical contact. Such worry and intense focus over future situations following a distressing experience has been linked to both anxiety disorders and PTSD, leading to an increase of cases of both types of disorders due to COVID-19.

What Can Be Done

The detrimental mental health effects of social distancing may be serious, fortunately there are things that can be done to manage them and protect ourselves from their potentially harmful consequences.

As with many ongoing and burdensome situations, communication is a key factor when addressing the detrimental effects on an individual’s mental health. Reaching out to personal, communal, and online sources of strength and support can offer an outlet for sharing frustration and concrete advice under the limitations of isolation. Initiating a conversation over such matters can be challenging but the feeling of being truly heard and understood can alleviate some of the heaviest mental health burdens experienced.

Consulting with a specialist can also greatly help when you are struggling during an extended period of isolation. Finding a form of therapy that works for you along with developing a personal connection with a professional you can trust, allows you to display more vulnerable sides of your personality and how you’ve been coping with the lockdown. Many insurance providers offer therapy as part of their insurance coverage plan and so it is recommended you contact a representative to find out about your available options.

Many individuals also report benefitting from adhering to a steady routine. Sticking to a schedule that includes regular conversations with friends, family, and colleagues can provide a sense of normalcy even under very abnormal circumstances. Allotting for enjoyable new pastimes during your day, such as crafting or baking, can offer a stress-relieving activity within a familiar setting that can contribute to your sense of comfort and exploration.