Before “coronavirus” crossed the tips of our tongues, we were living in an age of dangerous social isolation. Loneliness can compromise the immune system, lead to inflammation associated with heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and more. Too much isolation makes people far less likely to flourish. More than one-third of Americans aged 45 and older say they are lonely, according to a national survey by the AARP. Lonely adults are less likely to be involved in activities that build a social network, such as going to religious services, volunteering, joining a community group, or spending time on a hobby. They are more
likely to spend their time sleeping, eating, watching television, and sitting in front of a computer screen. And they are more inclined to use drugs and alcohol. Families with elderly or sick members are dealing with even stricter isolation in an attempt to prevent covid-19 in this vulnerable population. Now that we’ve been catapulted into the most widespread pandemic since the Spanish flu in 1918, with “social distancing” widely adopted nationwide and throngs ordered to self-quarantine, we need to find safe new ways to bust isolation and bolster resilience.
How can we respond to this coronavirus to preserve our psychological well-being? These science-based approaches can help us prepare for the toll of prolonged social isolation:
· Connect to sources of meaning. Focus on purpose, meaning and serving something larger than yourself. That might mean writing, painting, exercise, meditation, cooking, studying, teaching online, dropping off supplies or calling a neighbor. Engage in an activity you perceive as giving back or morally good. Focus on behaviors that align with your values. What makes you get up in the morning?
· Create structure with a schedule and new routines. Wake up at your usual time. Shower, get dressed, stick to your usual meal times. Pick up a new activity like guitar. Read or listen to an audio book. Learn new skills. Play games or puzzles. Learn a new trick from YouTube. Clean out your closets! Donate what you don’t need.
· Get exercise, sunshine and focus on self-care. Take long walks outside. Spend time in nature. Focus on nutrition. Connect with others safely.
· Don’t over rely on avoidance strategies. Stop “mal-adaptive behaviors.” To avoid anxious thoughts, we might drink or and eat too much or binge-watch Netflix shows but these strategies are only temporary escapes. Think of anxiety as a little tiger. When we feed the tiger, he goes away and for a while we are good. But then he comes back bigger.
· Be aware of negative thoughts and emotions. Acknowledge them with no judgment and let them go. This stems from mindfulness and bolsters psychological health.
· View this crisis as an opportunity: It is a break in the busyness of life, which provides an opportunity for psychological growth. When we become quieter and slow down a bit, there’s a chance to reflect on our lives, revaluate priorities and what makes us tick. This is a really stressful and transformational time with lots of sacrifices to be made. But there’s a chance we will emerge more resilient and with an increased sense of what really matters in the world.