Coping with the negative psychological effects of isolation

Quick show of hands: How many of you — in this time of great global health crisis — are eating, sleeping and/or drinking more than usual as a coping mechanism? Millions of you?? It’s clear from various posts on social media, not to mention “mainstream media,” that overconsumption is an obvious adverse result of isolation. People are consuming stuff in order to fill that little (or big) void inside of us caused by isolation otherwise known as “loneliness.” Admit it; some are binge-watching TV and Netflix, others are consuming a case of beer every other day (or more), and some are sleeping most of the day.

My advice (with which I’m sure a lot of medical professionals will agree) is this: even though the temptation to overconsume is very strong “during these uncertain times” (a phraise I am SOOOOO sick of hearing on radio stations, etc.), it’s best to try very hard to avoid (or dial down on) these negative coping behaviors. There are better and more healthy ways to deal with the negative psychological effects of isolation such as loneliness. Some people don’t want to admit to being lonely, but they are just fooling themselves. Shed the denial and hop on what I’m calling the “positive pandemic survival” bandwagon (rah, rah, rah!!!)!!! I’ll give you some ideas on how in a few paragraphs.

Since earlier this year, after the novel coronavirus, or Covid-19, was discovered in China and started racing across Europe and then the U.S., I’ve watched/listened to reports of businesses closing and people being put out of work because of the virus. Then sports teams announced they are not having a season, musicians cancelled concerts (nooooooo!!!! Sniff!! *sounds of sobbing*), plays are not being performed, and I grew horrified: holy crap, this economic impact on our world is going to be HUGE!!! And it is: The financial losses are in the billions (trillions?) and several million people are experiencing serious financial hardship. You have my sincere sympathy.

Not long after the virus began spreading wildly across the U.S. it came to my mind that there’s the less-discussed, yet not less important, negative impacts on people’s mental health arising from the “stay-at-home” orders (unlike other countries, I’m not aware whether any state in the U.S. is actually in “lockdown” such as they’ve endured in China and other countries). Scientific studies show these effects include anxiety, depression, sleep problems (I know some of you are going check, check, and check), withdrawal, regression and even hallucinations.

As a result of experiencing the above psychological issues, sometimes people turn to drugs — legal and otherwise — and alcohol to “combat” or “drown” unhappy feelings, for better or worse (the latter being the more likely scenario, in reality). This is obvious from newspaper reports (like my local paper printed) about area liquor stores doing booming business, with many people buying in bulk. This is not surprising and it is a bit sad to me. Consumption of mood-altering substances always raises concerns about the resultant social problems that we usually see, like murder, domestic abuse, drunk-driving crashes (don’t be naive: Just because bars are closed doesn’t mean there aren’t drunk drivers out there. Because News Flash: There Are) and so on.

Some outward actions of people suffering these mental-health conditions are either due to or result in fear, panic, cynicism, denial, aggressiveness (witness the anti-shutdown protesters for proof). Unfortunately people seem to be on one extreme or the other: either they are wearing masks and gloves everywhere (and perhaps sanitizing everything in sight as well) OR they are in the opposite camp which says “Virus, schmirus, you ain’t gonna take away my rights (to party, to protest, to gather in large crowds, etc.). These are the ones who are possibly in denial, saying “it’s no big deal” and going on with their lives pretty much as they did pre-pandemic.

I’d like to think I’m somewhere in the happy Medium: Being careful but not hysterical, and taking precautions. Staying at home doesn’t really bother me … too much. Most days. But, then there are other days ….(sigh)

As I mentioned, fear is a huge driver in the actions of people in the world today during this serious global health crisis. For that I offer the words of president Harry S. Truman: “The only ting we have to fear is fear itself.” Think about it. Let your concern, or fear, about the virus motivate you to positive action, not negative, destructive actions.

When this all began I was thinking that our “new normal” world order that has been created by “the virus” reminds me a of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” (TV series from the 60s), stories were dark mini-dramas on the psychological effects on people and how these effects drive people’s behavior in a given situation (recall that some of the stories ended up with everyone in the show being dead at the end, because of hysteria). And who among us hasn’t seen another great study on the horrors of prolonged isolation in the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks?? The scene where he was yelling at “Wilson,” his volleyball companion/friend, and then broke down crying was very touching and unforgettable.

Apparently the pandemic didn’t start the social isolation/loneliness fire: a 2018 study by Cigna showed that 40 percent of respondents to the survey said they “usually or always” felt their relationships (I’m assuming they meant friendships as well as significant-other relationships) were not very satisfying and that they often felt isolated. I also heard a report on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) that “more college students than ever” feel depressed/anxious/lonely most of the time (in spite of their being obsessed with being “connected” to the world via their phones). Another statistic I heard was that more people in the U.S. (I don’t know about the world as a whole) than ever before are now living alone. Well, at least I know I, a singleton, ain’t alone!!

Well, there’s a saying that just because we are along doesn’t mean we have to be lonely. We who are experiencing isolation due to shutdown orders and having to socially distance ourselves have resources to help alleviate the sometimes-gnawing feelings of being “down” and lonely. One of them is professional help, as in a therapist. Most medical practitioners now are doing e-visits (or “tele-visits”) over video chat apps and this includes mental health workers. I personally thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread when I “visited” some of my medical people over video chat. Pretty cool!! But I felt sad for the people who need mental health treatment who don’t have smartphones, computers, or whatever to virtually connect to providers. Because — and I know this will come as a shock to some of you — there ARE people out there who don’t have the technology. I’m betting many of these people live in rural areas. :(

So if feelings of gloom, doom and overwhelming despair are getting the best of you, I highly recommend therapy (I also strongly advise shutting off the media that creates all the gloom-and-doom scenarios/drama, but I know some people are so hooked on “staying informed” that they won’t take my advice. Trust me it works in keeping panic and fear at bay). It can be a fabulous blessing.

Another way to deal with the anxiety/depression and other unhappy effects of isolation is this: Get out of the house and get your body moving!! Exercise is medically proven to deal with a variety of mental and physical disorders and just feels great! I know sometimes my body wants to stay welded to the couch, but then my head has a serious talk with myself to get up and out, take in some fresh air and body movement, and it’s all good. Plus, while you’re walking/biking/rollerblading around town, you can visit with or wave to your neighbors … from a responsible distance, of course.

I mentioned above the existence of apps that allow us to see the person who were are talking to (just like in The Jetsons!!! Remember them??). That future is now, with video chatting, Duo, Skype, Facetime, and probably a whole list of others that I don’t know. I miss my relatives something fierce, and realize that we could be video chatting (and should be, if I knew when they weren’t going to be virtually schooling). If you too miss your peeps and have the technology (like most, but not all, of us have) then I heartily encourage you to use some form of video calling and stay in touch.

Speaking of technology, another idea is using social media and becoming involved in one or more of the many groups therein. I’m part of a number of these, one being “Women over 40, 50, 60… Are Fabulous.” We’re just a bunch of “older” women (no men) from around the globe who encourage, give advice, chat with each other and lend a virtual shoulder/listening ear to each other to help lift each other up. I think it’s a great group, which obviously is why I interact on it. So I recommend joining a community of like-minded virtual friends. Pre-pandemic, I had these resolutions to spend less time on social media and that has kinda admittedly gone down the toilet but hey — at least I’m not on there every day anymore, so that’s progress. LOL :)

When all is said and done and “they” (government officials who are going by what the Centers for Disease Controls tells them about covid-19) pronounce that the “world is now open,” I can just imagine mass chaos and partying in the streets. In a way that is scary to me. During the 1918 flu pandemic (and no, I wasn’t alive for that, just shortly thereafter), people apparently felt “safe” enough to gather together in large numbers again and guess what? A new wave of flu and millions more deaths. Let’s all be responsible and try to to let history repeat itself because if can and will do so, if conditions are right. Be part of the solution, not the problem, as the saying goes.

In closing, I offer this famous quote from an awesome TV show: “I’m pulling for you; we’re all in this together.” — Red Green, from “The Red Green Show.” I urge everyone to be alive and not just survive but strive to thrive. It’s in your (hopefully clean) hands (literally); you can do this!!

Experienced professional writer/freelancer and former newspaper reporter-turned-online writer/blogger. Thinker. “Old soul”, young hippie, empath.

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