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Behavioral Health Matters: Coping with isolation

We are experiencing unprecedented levels of isolation in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Though this isolation is necessary to minimize the spread of COVID-19, it can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health.

Much research has been conducted about the effects of isolation and loneliness, but a few factors make the current situation particularly difficult:

The time for ending isolation is unknown, and we are provided with a glut of information that is not always consistent and is overwhelming.

Some of the negative effects of isolation and loneliness include:

¯ Depression. There is a strong correlation between loneliness and depression – loneliness can cause depression and depression often includes the tendency to isolate and become even lonelier. Regardless of cause and effect, isolation and loneliness can trigger depressive disorders and increase the risk for suicide.

¯ Anxiety. We worry about coming in contact with the virus, about our loved ones becoming infected, particularly if they are front line health care workers or in another job that still requires regular interaction with the public.

Anxiety also stems from financial concerns. Many have lost their businesses and livelihoods and even with emergency legislation offering help, full financial recovery may be years down the road.

¯ Psychosis. Severe symptoms of psychosis related to extended periods of isolation may include hallucinations and delusional thoughts.

¯ Physiological problems. Duke University psychiatrist and epidemiologist, Dan Blazer, recently published a report on social isolation and loneliness in older adults.

The report found that loneliness is linked to increased risk of dementia, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and poor health in general. The subjects in the study were more likely to use alcohol and tobacco and less likely than their counterparts to exercise.

But these effects are not confined to older adults. Alexander Chouker, a University of Munich researcher, studied young, trained people in simulated spaceflight missions.

The isolated participants experienced negative changes in their sleep habits, their immune, endocrine and neurocognitive systems, and to their metabolisms.

¯ Substance Use Disorder challenges.

Addiction has been called a “disease of isolation.” According to the Chief Medical Officer at the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation, isolation measures asking people in recovery to pick up the phone or get online may not work out as well as in-person support.

Active drug users are more at risk of contracting diseases and using drugs while being alone increases the risk of overdose.

In addition, the increased negative effects of isolation may trigger a relapse.

We know that our current isolated state poses many challenges, and the need to focus on ways to feel better while facing these challenges is critical.

¯ Find new ways to feel connected. It may be more accurate to use the term “physical distancing” as opposed to “social distancing.” If you have access to online resources, join a local neighborhood chat group or start one yourself. Use live chat resources such as Zoom, Instagram Live, Skype, or FaceTime. Take the opportunity to strengthen relationships that have lapsed over the years by phone, email, text, or by writing a letter.

Some folks are standing outside and talking to loved ones on the porch or looking out a window, while keeping a distance of at least six feet.

¯ Exercise. There is no doubt about it — exercise if good for the body, mind, and spirit.

I recently resumed walking with a couple of friends while keeping a distance of at least six feet. We sometimes have to talk louder than usual to be heard, but the fresh air and greeting neighbors is comforting and reminds us of the importance of a sense of community.

¯ Help someone. Feeling useful is a powerful asset in our lives. Check in with people who are alone and may need help accessing basic essentials. Donate to businesses or groups who are providing free delivery and even free food or other essentials.

¯ Nurture your positivity and gratefulness. Decrease the time spent watching distressing media coverage.

Use deep breathing, positive self-talk, mediation, and prayer to elevate clear thinking and hope. Across Europe, on balconies or at open windows, people are coming together for at least one minute each night to sing a song or clap in gratitude for the healthcare workers that are risking their lives to care for others.

This is a wonderful way to remain thankful for what we do have.

Globally and nationally, we are all in an unusual, stress-inducing state of isolation. Let us remember to be understanding and kind to others, but also to ourselves.

There is comfort in facing this pandemic together with hope and resolve.

For more information and helpful resources, please visit:

The Washington County Behavioral Health Board’s website, wcbhb.org

The Recovery is Beautiful Facebook page, facebook.com/wcbhb

Miriam Keith is a Recovery and Prevention Advocate for the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.

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