After months of isolation (wait, what day is it?), the four walls of your space might be letting the waves of anxiety and depression come crashing in. The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of us in a “cabin fever” situation.
Has isolation gotten into your head? It’s entirely reasonable to feel anxious or depressed about being separated from your family members, friends, and co-workers. Humans are social beings, after all.
Anxiety symptoms may also increase due to the widespread uncertainty of the new coronavirus and our lack of control over the situation.
If you think you’re dealing with isolation anxiety or depression, here’s everything you should know about treatment and staying connected in this strange time.
Isolation anxiety has similar symptoms to generalized anxiety disorder, but it’s activated by a lack of social interaction. Research suggests that long-term loneliness and social isolation can contribute to a shorter lifespan.
Social isolation is also connected to health issues like depression, sleep problems, and changes in the immune system.
Most studies on isolation anxiety (and depression) have focused on older adults, since older people are more likely to live in isolation. (Call your grandma!) But during the COVID-19 outbreak, more people than ever are practicing self-isolation by following physical distancing and quarantine protocols.
Symptoms of anxiety due to isolation include:
- trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- consistent irritability
- uncontrollable feelings of worry
- muscle tension or soreness
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of restlessness or being on edge
Although it’s a different condition, anxiety is often coupled with depression (with or without isolation).
As with anxiety, research shows that a lack of social interaction can increase the risk of depression. Perceived isolation — the feeling of being isolated even if you aren’t — can also lead to depression.
Symptoms of depression due to isolation can include:
- constant sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- loss of interest or enjoyment in activities
- fatigue or lack of energy
- changes in appetite and/or weight
- trouble with concentration, memory, or decision making
- physical aches or pains
- unexplained digestive issues
- thoughts or attempts of suicide/self-harm
The good news is that we’re living in the 21st century and have the technology to help us to stay connected (and it’s easier than ever). Here are some ways to cope with isolation-related anxiety and depression.
Although research suggests there’s a link between social media use and the onset of depression and loneliness, social media and communication tools can also provide meaningful interactions.
Instead of mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed, reach out to people who really matter to you. Video calls via FaceTime or Zoom can create a sense of intimate conversion even though you’re physically distant from each other.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature improves mental health and cognitive function. If you can safely do so, get outside for some doc-approved activities during the pandemic.
If going outside isn’t an option, you could try bringing nature indoors by growing herbs or plants, opening your windows, or planting fresh flowers in your living space.
Keeping to a daily routine is one of the best ways to maintain a sense of predictability when things feel out of control. Routines can give purpose and structure to your day and distract you from what’s stressing you out.
This doesn’t mean you have to be super productive and accomplish everything on your to-do list. But having some structure in your day — waking up the same time, eating three meals, and exercising consistently — can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
You don’t have to take part in every Zoom happy hour you’re invited to, especially if you’re doing it just because of FOMO.
Do something because you actually want to. It’s OK to skip that Zoom party to take a breath or to enjoy the evening solo. Taking breaks and prioritizing your needs are ways to practice self-care! Try listening to your favorite podcast, cooking up a nourishing snack, or taking a relaxing bath or shower.
If you’re lucky enough to have a pet, this is a great time to rely on them for companionship. A little physical touch can increase your levels of dopamine and serotonin, hormones that help improve your mood and relieve stress.
Plus, if you have a dog that needs to be walked, that’s a great excuse to get your daily dose of fresh air.
Working out causes your brain to release endorphins, which are neurochemicals that boost your mood. Those endorphins can lead to a euphoric feeling (what some might call a “runner’s high”). Exercising also burns the stress hormone, cortisol. Your cortisol level rises when you’re stressed, which can increase anxious feelings.
Even if you can’t go out for a run or walk, there are tons of exercises you can do at home! If you’re looking for a sense of community in your fitness routine, many studios and gyms are offering live online workouts.
Be gentle with yourself and remember that not every moment of your day has to be planned out. Check in with your emotional and mental states and let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling. Remember to take deep breaths and let yourself rest and recover.
If you keep dwelling on your isolation, meditation may help you find a sense of calm. Meditation apps like Calm and Headspace are easily accessible from home and can guide you through various meditations and techniques to help you relax.
A common misconception about meditation is that you have to stay perfectly still and quiet for a certain amount of time. But there are actually tons of ways you can mediate, such as by walking or mindfully listening to music.
According to a 2017 review of studies, yoga is linked to better regulation of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, like elevated heart rate and chronic illness).
If you’re working from home, you’re probably spending a lot of time sitting. Yoga is an excellent way to squeeze in a quick workout that can give you a boost of energy (especially if that second cup of coffee doesn’t help).
Because we live in a digital age, all kinds of information is readily accessible, whether we want it or not. There comes a time when staying informed can be more harmful than helpful.
Too much phone use or news watching can hurt your mood — this is sometimes called doomscrolling. Try cutting down on your device use and unplugging from the 24-hour news cycle to find a sense of calm. (You don’t need to know everything about murder hornets right now!)
You might not have control over everything in life, but at least you can control how much content and news you expose yourself to.
Remember family game nights? Playing games is a great way to interact socially. If you live with a partner, your family, or roommates, try turning off the show you’ve been watching nonstop and connecting over a friendly competition.
If you live alone, you can recapture some of the fun of in-person interactions with your friends or family over Zoom. With time and creativity, almost any board game or party game can be played via videoconference.
A 2018 study of people with depression even found that playing action video games might help reduce the persistent negative thoughts associated with depression.
Growing indoor plants has an enormous impact on your mental well-being. Houseplants bring a part of nature into your living space, which is especially helpful if your time outdoors is limited or restricted.
Research suggests that even tiny doses of nature in our everyday lives can have lasting effects on our happiness and well-being. One study found that people who did planting tasks felt calmer, more comfortable, and more relaxed than those who performed tech-related tasks.
Especially if you live alone, plants can provide a sense of companionship that doesn’t require conversation (just remember to water them!).
It’s OK not to be OK and to seek help if you think you need it.
If you feel your symptoms are interfering with your daily life in an unmanageable way, talk to a mental health professional. If you don’t have a therapist, you can reach out to your primary care doctor for recommendations.
Many therapists are now offering services via video chat or phone, since in-person appointments may not be possible. For a more affordable option, consider trying a mental health app.