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With the number of COVID-19 cases growing every day, psychologists offer perspective on how to separate yourself from others, while still getting social support from people in your life.
Around the world, public officials are asking individuals who have contracted or been exposed to the coronavirus to practice social distancing, quarantine, or isolation measures to slow the pandemic spread of the COVID-19 sickness.
Social distancing involves keeping a secure distance of approximately 6 feet from others, including restricting meeting with them and going to public spaces – such as schools, churches, theaters, parks, and public transportation.
Quarantine involves avoiding contact with others, especially if a person has been exposed to coronavirus to see if they become ill.
Isolation involves separating individuals who have contracted COVID-19, to help remove the risk of them spreading the disease to others.
Spending days or weeks at home in confined spaces, with restricted social contact and stimulation, takes a toll on mental health. Through managed and controlled studies regarding interventions to reduce the psychological risks of isolation and quarantining, psychologists have established the best methods for handling these circumstances that are challenging.
Here is an overview of research on social distancing, quarantining, and isolation, as well as advice on how people can cope if asked to take such measures.
What to Expect
People asked to stay home due to sickness or exposure to COVID-19 positive people, will likely be cut off from their normal routines for at least two weeks, which is the average incubation period for the virus.
During this period of isolation, stress can be brought on for a variety of reasons. These can include a decline in meaningful activities, sensory stimuli and reduced social engagements. Your inability to financially provide for yourself or family can also be a significant stress factor. Stress often prevents your ability to deal with these situations with healthy coping strategies such as going to the gym or attending religious services.
Psychologists’ research has indicated that during a period of social distancing, isolation, or quarantine, you may experience the following:
Anxiety and Fear
You may feel anxious or worried about others, your family members or yourself contracting COVID-19 or spreading. It’s also common to have worries about obtaining food and personal supplies, taking time off work, or fulfilling family care obligations. Some people may have trouble focusing or sleeping on daily tasks.
Boredom and Depression
A break from your work/job and other meaningful activities interrupts your daily routine and may result in feelings of sadness or poor/depressed mood. Extensive periods spent at home can also create feelings of loneliness and boredom.
Anger, Irritability or Frustration
The loss of agency and personal freedom with isolation and quarantine can often become frustrating. You may also undergo feelings of hostility or bitterness toward those who have issued quarantine or isolation orders, or you were exposed to the virus because of another person’s negligence.
If others interact with you if you are sick or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, you may feel condemned by others who fear they will contract the illness.
Older adults, people with pre-existing mental health conditions, and health-care workers assisting with the response to the coronavirus may also be at an increased risk of experiencing psychological distress when they engage in social distancing, quarantine, or isolation.
People with disabilities who need specialized diets, medical supplies, assistance from caregivers, and other living environments also face psychological challenges during a pandemic because of the increased difficulties in receiving the care they require.
How to Cope
Fortunately, psychological research also leads to ways to manage these complicated conditions. Before social distancing, isolation, or quarantine orders were enacted, experts recommend planning ahead by thinking about how you might like to spend your time, who you can contact for psychosocial assistance and how you can address any physical or mental health conditions of you or your family.
Limit news consumption to reliable sources-
It’s important to obtain accurate and timely health information regarding COVID-19, but consuming too much media coverage of the virus can lead to heightened feelings of fear and anxiety. Psychologists recommend paying attention to the amount of time spent on news and social media and other activities/pastimes that are unrelated to quarantine or isolation, such as reading, listening to music, or learning a new language. Reputable organizations — which include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the World Health Organization— are ideal sources of information on the virus.
Create and follow a daily routine-
Maintaining a healthy daily routine for adults and children is critical in preserving a sense of control and direction in their lives despite the unfamiliarity of isolation and quarantine. Try to include regular daily activities, such as work, exercise, or learning, even if they must be executed remotely. Integrate other pastimes that are healthy.
Stay virtually connected with others-
Your face-to-face interactions may be restricted, but psychologists recommend using phone calls, text messages, video chat, and social media to access your friends and family for social support. If you’re feeling anxious or sad, use these conversations as an opportunity to communicate your experience and correlated emotions. Reach out to people you know who are in a situation that is similar. Facebook groups have already formed to facilitate support and communication among individuals asked to quarantine.
Using your relationship with pets for emotional support is another real way to stay connected. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend eliminating contact with pets if you have COVID-19 until the dangers of transmission between humans and animals are better studied and understood by physicians and scientists.
Maintain a lifestyle that is healthy-
Get sleep as well as eating well, while getting enough exercise in your home when you are physically capable of doing so. Try to avoid alcohol or drugs that are a way to cope with the stresses of isolation and quarantine, if needed, consider telehealth options for psychotherapy. If you already have a psychologist, talk to them ahead of a potential quarantine to see if they can continue your sessions phone-based or online video.
Use psychological strategies to manage stress and stay positive-
Take some time to think about your worries and aim to be realistic in your assessment of the concerns, as well as your ability to cope. Try not to catastrophize; instead, focus your thoughts on what you can do to improve your experience during this time and accept the things that are not able to change. One way to do this is to keep a daily gratitude journal. You may also decide to download smartphone applications that deliver mindfulness and relaxation exercises. For example, PTSD Coach offers free tools and suggestions from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD and the Department of Defense’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology. It has resources on coping mechanisms and libraries on exercises such as deep breathing, positive imagery, muscle relaxation, and more.
Focusing on the reasons that are altruistic social distancing, quarantine, or isolation can also help mitigate distress that is psychological. Remember that by taking measures that are such, you are reducing the possibility of transmitting COVID-19 and protecting those who are most vulnerable.
What Happens Next
After a period of quarantine or isolation, you may have a variety of emotions, which include, relief, gratitude, remorse for those who were lost, frustration or anger towards people who you are around, worry you may infect them with the virus, or even feelings of personal growth and increased spirituality. It’s also okay to feel anxious, but if you experience symptoms of extreme stress, such as ongoing trouble sleeping, inability to carry out routines that are daily or an increase in drug or alcohol use, seek help from a health-care provider.
See more APA advice on ways to deal with COVID-19.
Tools and Resources
- GeroCentral Covid-19 Resources
Resources for clinicians, older adults and families
- Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020
- Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with the Coronavirus Disease 2019
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2020
- Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public
World Health Organization, 2020
- Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health: Tips for Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation During an Infectious Disease Outbreak
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014
- The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence
Brooks, S.K., et al., The Lancet, 2020
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress Helpline
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline