How to Ease Anxiety in Times of Social Isolation During COVID-19
Currently, states in the U.S. are mandating that we distance ourselves from others who are possible carriers of COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus. Social disruption with no sign of a solution causes psychological stress (Wohleb 2011). There is a feeling of repeatedly being disappointed, and this defeatist attitude is closely linked to depression.
A primal human social instinct is to seek comfort and social contact in a larger group as a means of survival (Victoria Sabo 2020). Humans begin to feel unsafe once separated from this survival instinct. Most of us are busy and goal-oriented, and to slow down goes against our nature. Slowing down cramps our style and is going to force us to make undesirable adjustments.
Coping with isolation due to social distancing
We are wired to be social creatures, and that's how we cope when a big disaster happens (Hawryluk 2004; Murthy 2000; Lieberman 2014; Sacks 2020). In some respects, the challenge with social distancing is about power and control. Many feel they are losing control and search for healthy ways to cope. Social distancing (isolation) could have devastating effects on people with depression and anxiety because they are left stuck with their own thoughts.
The urgency to disconnect also creates a lot of fear with people. Not everyone is going to be able to continue to get the help they need, making it important to be in touch with support systems. Self-isolation can cause or raise anxiety and produce symptoms similar to the COVID-19 virus whereby you are unable to catch your breath, the chest tightens, the heart pulsates, and you feel overwhelming edginess.
We need a community of peers to sustain our well-being. Creating such a community of peers despite social distancing should be a priority during this pandemic crisis.
Healthy ways to ease anxiety
Knowledge is power and puts you more in control.
Know the facts, but do not overdo it. Our nervous system is always assessing our environment for safety or danger (Morton 2018). Put the pandemic in perspective and accept that uncertainty and second-guessing are part of the human condition. Identify the source(s) of your anxiety and seek ways to let go of those you have no control of. Recite and heed the message of the serenity prayer: “God [or whomever or whatever you identify as your higher power], grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”
Create a worry window.
Minimize screen time and intensely focusing on news updates. Limit yourself to no more than 30 minutes of COVID-19 news at the beginning of the day and 30 minutes at end of the day. Unplug yourself from inaccurate, speculative, opinionated, and fake news information going out over social media. Find some trusted sources of information (for example, the CDC or coronavirus.gov).
Connect, connect, connect.
Continue to engage with people who are close to you and make you feel safe. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get emotional support if you are struggling by seeing a therapist or joining a virtual support group (Barak 2006). HIPAA laws are loosening up to allow for more virtual or telehealth counseling options.
Reach out and connect with others by not only sharing worries and symptoms but encouragement and support. Everyone has something not going right. Reach out and exchange kindness, such as taking turns grocery shopping or teaching someone how to FaceTime. Keys to maintaining human contact are many and well known such as telephones, FaceTime, Zoom, Ring Central, and Skype.
Practice mindfulness, meditation and yoga.
In isolation you might find yourself free of distractions. At such times, often unconscious insecurities make their way to the surface and the conscious mind. Become consciously aware of those thoughts; validate and normalize them. Such grounding can be accomplished through mindfulness whereby you allow your body time to calm down and access the present. These are times to contemplate finding yourself and establishing a sense of meaning and purpose. Meditation reduces social isolation and loneliness (Creswell 2012).
Other activities that may reduce anxiety
- Establishing a daily routine
- Creating a list of distractions, including games or reading
- Refraining from shaming and blaming
- Practicing self-compassion
- Engaging in relaxation techniques, including deep breathing
- Practicing gratitude
- Dancing, listening to music and looking at positive images
- Laughing with a good book or comedy special
- Spending time with your pet
How to practice self-care during the Coronavirus
Maintain a healthy food plan
The immune system requires a lot of energy to defend our bodies, so adequate caloric intake is important. Choose foods that support a healthy immune system, including foods with zinc, selenium, and Vitamin A, B6, C, and E. Consider including fish, vegetables (dark leafy greens, green peppers, yellow- and orange-pigmented vegetables), citrus fruit, nuts and seeds. Cocoa, one of life’s pleasures, should also be included (Perez-Cano 2013).
Staying hydrated by drinking a lot of water also helps your body heal quickly and eases symptoms while you’re sick. Vitamin D, found in sunshine, egg yolk, salmon, cheese and vitamin D-fortified milk, allows the immune system to remain dormant and unaware of threats from infections.
Get a good amount of sleep and move about throughout the day.
Sleep deprivation increases cortisol, which we have learned suppresses immune function. A good amount of sleep is anywhere between seven and nine hours per night.
Activity helps improve circulation of the lymphatic system which contains immunity cells. Joyful movement also lowers stress hormones. Aerobic activities help increase our respiratory capacity. Exercise moderate in duration and intensity decrease the risk of immunosuppression (Murphy 2008, 2009; Bishop 2009). Prolonged intense exercise, however, may create stress and increase the chance of infection by causing immunosuppression.
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By learning to manage stress and its negative effects, you may be able to improve the function of the immune system and minimize or slow the course of the COVID-19 disease (Keefe 2004). There is value in supporting your immune system and sustaining a healthy system should you get sick. The message is not to panic, but instead to focus on doable and constructive ways to manage your involuntary, extended period of isolation.
Ralph Carson, LD, RD, PhD, is Eating Recovery Center’s Senior Clinical and Research Adviser. Dr. Ralph Carson is a clinical nutritionist and exercise physiologist with nearly 40 years of experience in the treatment of addictions, obesity and eating disorders.
Additionally, Dr. Carson is an active board member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) and the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA).
He has earned multiple degrees, including a Bachelor of Science from Duke University; Bachelor of Health Science from Duke University Medical School; Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Oakwood College; and a Ph.D. in Nutrition from Auburn University.
Barak Y. The immune system and happiness Autoimmune Reviews (2006) 5: 523 – 7
Cresswell JD et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial Brain Behav Immun (2012) 26: 1095-101
Hawryluck L et al. SARS Control and Psychological Effects of Quarantine, Toronto, Canada Emerg Infect Dis (2004) 10: 1206-12
Keefe F. Duke Med, Winter/Fall 2004 vol. 4 pp. 28.
Lieberman MD. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect Broadway Books (2014)
Morton K. Are u ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health Da Capo Lifelong Books (2018)
Murthy VH. Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World Hardcover Wave (2020)
Perez-Cano FJ et al. The effects of cocoa on the immune system Front Pharmacol (2013) 4: 71
Sacks E. Social distancing could have devastating effect on people with depression NBC News (March 16, 2020) https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/social-distancing-could-have-devastating-effect-people-depression-n1157871
Wohleb ES et al. Adrenergic Receptor Antagonism Prevents Anxiety-Like Behavior and Microglial Reactivity Induced by Repeated Social Defeat. Journal of Neuroscience, (2011) 31 (17): 6277