The Devastating Effects of Social Distancing
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the government is recommending social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. It may seem relaxing to be told to hang out at home and watch TV, or not to have to worry about going to work for the many whose businesses have closed down. However, keeping yourself in isolation can change the way your brain works. Taking the necessary precautions to protect your mental health is crucial during this time.
Brain Changes From Social Distancing
One study in Cell discovered that mice who were socially isolated for two weeks produced brain chemicals that made them aggressive to threats and prone to high-stress levels. Another study in Natural Neuroscience found that eight weeks of social isolation disrupted the production of myelin in parts of the brain that are associated with complex emotions. Even though we have the technology to communicate with others when we cannot be with them in person, we still face problems mentally without the social contact we crave.
Social Distancing Leads to Anxiety and Depression
When you are surrounded by people all the time, you feel a sense of safety and protection. Being separated from others for long periods can make you feel lonely and depressed. Social isolation can also increase the risks of anxiety and depression. This can make you more prone to panic and/or paranoia, as well as increase the experience of boredom, frustration, and fear. You may even have trouble figuring out who you are when your peers are not around. If your mental health issues are becoming a problem, give your therapist a call or seek online support.
Social Distancing May Lead to Rumination
Rumination is when you think the same thoughts over and over. Because you no longer have a regular schedule to follow or people to see, your brain tends to focus on worst-case scenarios. Typically during times of crisis, people have someone to turn to and lean on for support. In social distancing, however, this is not the case. Without social interaction, the only information you have is the coronavirus news coverage, which only further contributes to the cycle of fear, anxiety, and panic.
Sometimes, a phone call, text message, or a social media post is not enough when you are isolated and craving social connection. When the only form of communication you have is through a screen, the need for human closeness and face-to-face contact intensifies. Still, just because we cannot visit our peers in person, does not mean that we cannot take advantage of the different communication channels available to us. Try to set aside some time to video chat with your friends, family, or even co-workers, so it feels like you are properly communicating with people even if they are not physically in your presence.
Find Meaning at Home
It is important to not spend all of your time looking up the latest updates of the coronavirus. Instead, find things to do in the house that need doing. See if there is any housework that you can complete, take care of your pets, or get started on that project that you did not have time to do before. Instead of dwelling on what is out of your control, find opportunities to keep your brain busy and explore your surroundings at home.
Find Moments to Laugh
Even though the coronavirus and the resulting social distancing procedures are serious, you can still find the light in this uncertain time. This means that you do not have to feel guilty about laughing at memes that reflect this situation. Find a funny movie on TV, or rent one online, and give yourself space to laugh and enjoy yourself. After all, the people who have been able to get through hard situations kept their sense of humor intact. “Gallow humor” is when people poke fun at death to make it less scary. As long as you are not joking about those who have been harmed by the virus, there is nothing wrong with joking about being under quarantine or social distancing. Being able to find humor in anything can be a valuable trait.
While you may be feeling bad right now, chances are that there are other people you know that have it worse than you. They could have clinical depression or another mental illness that does not go well with isolation. Make an effort to connect with them in the same way you would like others to connect with you. Think about people who have loved ones that live far away from them. Send them a note or give them a call to let them know that you care. If someone got laid off or temporarily lost their job, let them know that they are not alone in that. Checking in on others will make you feel useful and show others that you care and support them.
Just because you are stuck at home does not mean that you have to lie in bed all day. Doing that will only make you focus on the negative feelings associated with being isolated. With the gyms closed down right now, consider taking a walk around your neighborhood, walking your dog or ride your bike. The sun will provide you with mood-boosting vitamin D. Getting active and finding ways to stay moving while at home can help make social distancing a lot easier.
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