Thursday Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Residents are minimizing their outings and practicing “social distancing”, but experts warn that prolonged isolation creates a different kind of health risk.
We've received many questions from people who say that they’re feeling worried, lonely and “stir-crazy.” Those emotions are likely to worsen as most people remain confined to their own homes.
“Social interaction is actually incredibly important for our health, our well-being and our immune system function,” said Jennifer Howell, a psychologist at UC Merced. “So really, isolating oneself could put you at greater risk if you did come into contact with the virus”
We gathered tips from experts on how to keep a sense of calm during the stay at home order.
Physical Distancing vs Social Distancing
There are safe ways to see others, such as checking in via phone or video, or recreating outside with a friend. The latest order from Sacramento County permits people to attend private gatherings of no more than six nonrelatives in a home, if attendees remain six feet apart. People are also allowed to visit family members to care for them or deliver supplies.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley says the phrase “social distancing” makes people assume that they have to be alone.
“What we should be saying is physical distancing, and we should also be emphasizing the importance of social cohesion or social connection as we go through this period.” she said. “We have to overcompensate by ratcheting up our normal habit of corresponding with one another through technology or other digital channels.”
On top of the stay-at-home order, some servers, teachers and other public-facing workers across the state are now unemployed and dealing with financial anxiety. Constant media updates about the virus’s spread could cause some Californians to panic.
Sandra Jergensen, a cooking instructor who usually works in other people’s homes, says it’s been strange to be inside instead of out in the Sacramento community.
“I’ve been feeling incredibly alone,” she said.
To pass the time, she hosted a Facebook Live tutorial on one of her favorite popcorn recipes.
“Watching people, kids, adults, cook together and all of us sharing our photos of what we made was really beautiful,” she said. “I felt like I was getting a slice of my old, regular life back, as well as watching people take care of themselves.”
A lack of testing supplies has made it difficult to gauge the scope of COVID-19’s spread, and officials say they aren’t sure how long stay-at-home orders must stay in place.
“It is psychologically very common to worry,” Howell said. “We worry to prevent bad things from happening. When we worry, we try to take action. Unfortunately now we’re in a time of uncertainty where our actions can’t necessarily do a whole lot.”
This feeling is sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness,” and Simon-Thomas says it’s a risk factor for depression and other serious mental health issues. She says in times like these, it’s crucial to stay focused on the present moment rather than dwelling on fears of the future.
That can be done through mindfulness practices such as meditation, or by taking note of what you’re grateful for.
“We have a capacity to shift those patterns, to adopt a different mental habit and tell ourselves a story that’s different than the one that might be happening automatically,” she said.
She used her own anxieties about her elderly relatives potentially dying from the virus as an example.
“I could spend many, many segments of time having that thought,” she said. “The alternative is … I can reach out to them and tell them that I love them. I can get on FaceTime with them and have a warm conversation about what went well in their day.”
When shifting your thought patterns doesn’t work, experts say distracting yourself from the source of your worries can be just as good.
But watching Netflix or reading the news won’t cut it, Howell said. It’s got to be something that fully consumes your attention. She refers to it as a “flow state.”
“Flow states are these states where you are doing something that is so totally engrossing that you kind of lose time. It’s not just pure distraction,” she said. “It’s something that engages your mind.”
- Creating art
- Doing a puzzle
- Playing or listening to music
Staying busy can include your social circles, too. Here are a few examples of social activities you can engage in remotely:
- Start or join a virtual book club
- Watch a movie as a group
- Take an online cooking class
- Watch a virtual concert
- Experience zoos, museums and aquariums online
The mental health repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic are a serious concern, experts say. Californians in quarantine, and especially those who live alone, should keep a close watch on their mental state and reach out for help if needed.
“If someone is highly isolated and deprived of contact with other people, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of deep sadness, feelings of overwhelm, having the sense that we don’t matter ... those are feelings to really look out for. If they start to permeate your ongoing thoughts, that is definitely a time to reach out and seek support,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
Here are a few resources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mental Health America to help you find support:
- Coping with stress during an infectious disease outbreak
- Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health during an Infectious Disease Outbreak
- Living With Mental Illness During COVID-19 Outbreak– Preparing For Your Wellness
- Care for your Coronavirus Anxiety
- Tips For Social Distancing, Quarantine, And Isolation During An Infectious Disease Outbreak
- COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders
Tools To Connect With Others
- Social Support: Getting And Staying Connected
- MHA’s Inspire Community
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)'s Online Support Groups
- Lyf App
For Families and Children
- Helping Children Cope with Emergencies
- Coping After a Disaster
- Talking to Kids about COVID-19
- How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids
For First Responders
Local resources for Sacramento residents
Many of the areas wellness practitioners offer various types of therapy and movement courses online. Find a full directory here.
The Sacramento chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is moving its support groups to online-only. More information on their site.
Some local yoga studios, including SolFire Yoga, are launching virtual class passes.
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