Combating the Effects of Social Isolation

7 tips for safeguarding your wellness and well-being as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies

By: Judy Germany Mental & Behavioral Health
Combatting Social Isolation

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, the best way to protect ourselves and others from community spread is to stay home.  

That means not going out unless it's absolutely necessary and limiting contact with loved ones who don't live with you. This is especially important for people who are at high risk for COVID-19, but given how prevalent the virus now is, it applies to everyone regardless of our age or health.

Couple all of that with colder weather limiting socially distant outdoor gatherings in many states and you may start to feel that same sense of isolation you experienced back in March and April. 

And prolonged isolation can have a profoundly negative impact on your mind, mood and body.

Research has shown that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse, as well as chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. It also raises the risk of dementia in older adults.

“Humans are social creatures by nature,” explains clinical psychologist Anne Rufa, PhD. “We’re not meant to lead solitary lives. It’s important for us to be able to engage, to share our experiences and feelings with others and have them bear witness. That’s true even for people who are introverted. Additionally, when we physically bond with loved ones, like hugging or breastfeeding, the pituitary gland releases a hormone called oxytocin that makes us feel calm and happy.”

Restrictions on social interactions are likely to continue until a COVID-19 vaccine is broadly available. To help, Rufa offers 7 things you can do to combat the potentially damaging effects of isolation, keep connected and safeguard your well-being.

1. Find new ways to come together.

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been coming up with inventive ways to bring us closer and bridge the physical distance between us. And you may need to come up with new ideas now to combat quarantine fatigue.

The good news is that because COVID-19, there are a lot of new socially distant offerings, some of which didn't exist nine months ago. Consider joining a virtual club, or take a group fitness class online (or, where offered, outdoors). Sign up for an online course to gain new expertise or sharpen your skills. Pair up with a friend or family member to learn a new language. Form a book club to discuss a book you've been wanting to read. Stream an online play, concert or opera; or, if there's a drive-in theater in your area, go and see some movies from the safety of your car.   

Rufa also recommends reaching out beyond your own circle to the vulnerable members of your community, such as seniors and people with disabilities — especially those who live alone or don’t have access to technology.

“Consider if you have the ability to engage with neighbors who may need help. Pick up a few groceries for them during your weekly shopping trip, help them get medications, leave treats at their door, or simply call them on the phone a few times a week to check in,” Rufa says. “There are many ways to help our most vulnerable citizens feel less isolated. Even a small gesture goes a long way.”

If there's no one in your circle who needs a check-in, look for ways to help others. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities you can do either safely in-person or remotely.

2. Take outdoor breaks (or bring the outdoors inside).

If you live in a warmer climate, Rufa recommends scheduling fresh air breaks throughout the day — whether you walk around the block a few times, walk your dog, hang out on your balcony or porch, or just crack open a window.

Being outdoors or letting the outdoors in can help you feel less claustrophobic and more connected to the world around you. Just make sure to keep at least six feet between you and anyone you encounter while you are out; you can still greet them with a wave and friendly words from that safe distance.

A bonus to being outside, even briefly: 10 minutes of daily sun exposure (without sunscreen) will help you maintain a healthy level of vitamin D.

For those in colder places, if you can't get outside, open your blinds or curtains during the day to let the daylight in. Spend some time sitting in front of a window and looking out so you aren't always focused on the inside of your home. And, if it's not too miserable out, bundle up and go for a brief walk: Even a brief change of scenery will refresh you. 

3. Continue to commemorate special occasions.

Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, births and other happy milestones is life-affirming and mood-boosting. So continue to carve out time to enjoy special moments.

Most restaurants and bakeries have curbside or door-to-door delivery: If you are able to do so, get a special treat. Or try preparing something yourself — a recipe you’ve always wanted to try or your favorite dish.

You can also throw a virtual party with friends and loved ones, even send invitations via email or text as you would for an in-person party.

To honor those you care about on their special days: Craft a homemade card or gift and leave it on their doorstep or in their mailbox. If that’s not possible, take a photo of yourself holding a card or sign and text or email it to them. Or, sing “Happy Birthday” and share the video. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate production: it’s all about showing that you are thinking of them.

4. 'See' your loved ones.

While texting or calling are great ways to check in, actually seeing the faces of family, friends and co-workers can help you feel more connected than just hearing their voices.

From virtual hangouts and meetings, to Skype and Facetime, to Instagram and TikTok, there are many ways to incorporate visuals into your communications.  

For those who aren’t as tech-savvy but want to learn, there are YouTube tutorials and free apps that can help you get started. Rufa recommends the Generations on Line app for senior citizens: “It’s designed specifically for older adults to help them understand how to use devices, like tablets, that they may not be comfortable with.” 

And if you don’t have video capabilities or just don’t feel comfortable being on camera, try a simple photo swap via text or email; you and the person you’re talking to can then pull up the pictures and look at each other while you’re talking.

If you do venture out to see a loved one, remember to take every precaution: Wear a mask, stay at least six feet apart, don't share food or utensils, and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently. 

Even in these stressful times, carve out time to enjoy special moments.

5. Use mindfulness to create a sense of calm.

If you start to feel overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness, anxiety or hopelessness, and you don’t have access to the people or activities that typically enable you to cope, mindfulness can help.

“Mindfulness is all about staying in the moment and not going down the path of ‘what if?’ ” Rufa explains. “ ‘What if I have to be isolated for several more months? What if I lose my job? What if I get sick? Those fears are very real. The key is to balance your emotions rather than going down the potentially fraught path of worrying about the future.”

Find an activity that can keep you in the moment, and fully immerse yourself by engaging as many of your senses — sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing — as possible. For instance, if you are preparing a meal, focus all of your attention on cooking and eating: Concentrate on the texture of the ingredients, the sound of the pan sizzling, the aroma, the presentation on the plate and the delicious taste.

“Really try to stay grounded and give yourself a break from the challenges you’re dealing with,” Rufa says. “Maybe cooking isn’t your thing, but can you be fully present with your child while spending time with them, or with a craft or puzzle, or while you’re out taking a fresh air break? It can be challenging, but it’s helpful to get even a temporary reprieve from our negative thoughts.”

Learn more about how mindfulness practice can help in times of uncertainty.

6. Accept that the situation is challenging.

“It’s important to acknowledge that this continues to be difficult and stressful,” Rufa says. “As much as we are fortunate that many of us have access to these different ways of connecting with others — loved ones, or strangers with shared interests — it’s still an unprecedented time, and we need to be OK with whatever emotions we’re experiencing.”

Some days you will feel more frustrated, stressed or anxious than others, and you may have more emotional ups and downs during the day. Allow yourself to experience your feelings in the moment, then see if there’s something you can do to restore your emotional balance, even something as simple as closing your eyes and taking deep breaths, taking a bath or making yourself a fragrant cup of tea.

7. If you are struggling, talk to a mental health professional.

You don’t have to cope with your feelings on your own. There are many supportive services available to help.

“COVID-19-related social isolation could affect people with mental health issues like depression, anxiety or PTSD more profoundly. But we are all vulnerable during times like these,” Rufa says. “I encourage anyone who is struggling or feeling overwhelmed to reach out to a mental health provider — whether you already have one or not — as soon as possible.”

If you don’t have a mental health provider, start with the websites of hospitals in your area, like Rush's Find a Provider tool, or local government sites like Chicago Connects that offer a variety of mental health resources. Psychology Today also enables you to easily search for providers.

Most mental health providers are now offering telehealth visits, even for new patients. And if your insurance doesn't cover these visits and the out-of-pocket cost is prohibitive, organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offer support groups, a helpline, online discussion groups and guidance to help you connect to mental health resources in your area. 

“What makes me feel optimistic is that people seem to be making more of an effort to reach out,” Rufa says. “It’s strange and scary that we can’t physically be around each other the way we’re used to. But we’re at least realizing that looking out for and connecting with others, as well as taking good care of ourselves, will help us all get through these difficult times.”

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