The Hidden Risk of Social Isolation During COVID-19

How to Create Social Distance Without Social Isolation to Maintain Your Mental Health and Wellbeing

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Many of us now are now sharing a common and almost surrealistic experience with family, friends, neighbors and, in this almost unprecedented instance, with millions across the globe: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives and immersing an entire world in a sea of uncertainty, fear and anxiety that is fully palpable and yet still difficult to measure. 

Daily, every conceivable source from email to news to social media reminds us that the CDC recommends “social distancing” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus – to “flatten the curve.” Most are complying, but there is a hidden risk that can transform social distancing into social isolation if we are not careful. 

Many people understand that social distancing is the best avenue open to us right now to avoid negatively impacting the health of individuals who are most at risk – including the elderly and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, and other disorders that impair the immune system. There is another risk factor associated with this pandemic that is not as apparent but one that could impact every one of us over time – mental health conditions.

An article in Harvard Business Review by Scott Berinato pointed out the importance of acknowledging and managing our feelings as we try to cope with this global catastrophe. Why? The impact of loneliness and isolation on health and wellbeing is significant – just as deadly as any disease or disorder.

Loneliness is more dangerous than obesity and as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One report showed that poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increase in risk of stroke.

More than eight million older adults are affected by isolation and three in five adults (61%) report they are lonely. Forty three percent of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis and, of those who report feeling lonely, 45 percent are at an increased risk of death.

According to the National Institute on Aging, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

Berninato cited experts in his article, such as David Kessler, co-author with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss, who suggests that we might all be experiencing “anticipatory grief.” That is the feeling we get about what the future holds during very uncertain times. We’re worrying about a storm coming, feeling loss of safety, loss of normalcy and all trying to comprehend the fear of contagion, the economic toll, and the loss of connection.

Whether you are self-quarantining out of precaution, working remotely, living in a state that has issued shelter-in-place mandates, or continuing to travel to work each day, here are steps you can take to ensure that you do not fall prey to social isolation:

  1. Maintain face-to-face interactions: Thanks to technology improvements, it’s easier than ever to continue seeing the faces of friends and loved ones even from afar. Using free platforms such as Facetime, Zoom or Marco Polo, families and friends can still gather and have meaningful conversations while respecting the need to maintain physical distance. Try scheduling a virtual happy hour, family dinner, a coffee get-together, or book club. When possible, try to incorporate a video component instead of just a phone call.
  2. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Get enough sleep, continue to eat nutritious foods, and participate in at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, even if you can’t leave your home. Many companies are providing free, online workouts using your body as resistance. If needed, consider telehealth options for psychotherapy.
  3. Stay positive. Use this time to keep a gratitude journal and jot down things you are thankful for each day. Download a free app that delivers daily mindfulness or relaxation exercises.
  4. Keep a routine. Even just small steps such as waking up and getting dressed for the day (instead of a bathrobe and pajamas) can help maintain your mental health by fostering a sense of normalcy. This is very important for children or the elderly who have had their routines disrupted and may be feeling increased anxiety.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge what we are all going through and sharing that with others. We need to keep trying, keep moving, and understand that we will get through this. It may be a new world perhaps different than the one we knew only a few short weeks ago, but life will go on and we will learn from this experience and hopefully leverage that knowledge into creating a better world for all of us.

For more information regarding COVID-19’s impact on mental health, check out Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Health, and the CDC, plus a full list of coronavirus resources for those most at risk

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