Many states in the US have taken drastic measures to contain the new viral infection, COVID-19, by banning or restricting all types of social gatherings. Perhaps the most frequent advice given by health officials, aside from washing hands regularly and maintaining social distance, has been for people to stay home. For instance, in California, the stay at home order requires that people, save for essential services workers, stay home as much as possible, leaving home only for essential needs (e.g., buying groceries, getting prescriptions). Is it time to analyze the psychological costs of Covid-19?
Many individuals are finding the reality of having to stay home highly stressful. They are reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Why? Because human beings are inherently social. We need to interact with other human beings.
Psychologists have known about the importance of meaningful social interactions for decades. For instance, the “hierarchy of needs,” proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, emphasizes the universality of social needs. It says we all have a need to belong to groups and communities.
What happens if we don’t meet our social needs regularly? As Dhruv Khullar, M.D., explained in a New York Times article, social isolation and separation are associated with increased stress hormones, sleep difficulties, cognitive problems, a greater risk for heart disease and stroke, immune changes (e.g., greater inflammation), and premature death. In other words, isolation is a significant threat to our health and happiness.
Yet, given the current circumstances, we are forced to stay home as much as possible, separated from relatives, friends, coworkers, and other people who matter to us and to whom we matter. The situation is worse for those of us who had already been feeling disconnected and socially separated or who worry about vulnerable people in our lives, like our grandparents or mentally ill relatives.
So, how can we get through the next few weeks or possibly months?
First, prepare yourself emotionally.
Expect to feel anxious or sad from time to time. In addition, do not add to your distress by spending hours watching the news, imagining worst-case scenarios, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors (e.g., drinking too much). You need to be at your best—for the sake of yourself, for your family, and for the community. So, exercise, eat healthily and get sufficient sleep.
Second, connect with others more frequently than before.
This means more regular texting and calling. And if you have never tried video-chatting, this may be a good time to learn to do this. And, during these interactions, form the intention to be more present and more compassionate. Listen more openly and deeply. And, in return, let yourself feel their care and kindness.
Third, structure your day and follow a routine.
Structure and routine are important for well-being. If you have been laid off from work recently, it is crucial that you set goals and plan your day accordingly. What kind of goals? You could reorganize your kitchen, teach yourself a new dance routine, study that language you always wanted to speak, learn how to meditate, etc.
Last, be on the lookout for signs of mental illness, including anxiety disorders or major depression, in yourself and others. You might be sinking into depression so slowly that you do not realize it until it is too late. Spotting the illness early can help you recover quickly before it significantly affects important aspects of your life. So, monitor your mood and motivation regularly. And seek counseling if you feel unable to manage your emotions.