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Dealing with the mental health impact of social distancing

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With society now being called to practice social distancing, it’s become even more difficult for those who live alone to socialize.

Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 can make people feel anxious and out of control. Feelings of loneliness and isolation that are exacerbated during social distancing can cause our mental health to suffer.

Carolina Osorio, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at the Loma Linda Behavioral Health Institute, is no stranger to working with people who feel isolated. “Loneliness can be toxic to the body,” she says. “We see this in our elderly patients, but we know it can impact anyone who is disconnected from the people around them.”

Osorio provides tips for dealing with fears of loneliness or isolation during social distancing and offers insight on how to stay connected with your community.

Use digital platforms

It’s no secret that loneliness affects our health negatively, and Osorio says the United States was already in the midst of a epidemic of loneliness, even before starting the COVID-19 crisis.

“Loneliness is a threat to public health, much like obesity and substance use,” she says. “The research tells us those lonely people are more likely to become ill, experience cognitive decline and die earlier than those with more social lives.”

With society now being called to practice social distancing, it’s become even more difficult for those who live alone to socialize with their friends or family. This has brought about groups who are attempting to make digital communication more meaningful. “We encourage our patients to say ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’ so they aren’t excluding the social interaction that can be done through technology,” Osorio says.

COVID-19 has made it a bit easier to both talk about and relate to feelings of loneliness. There is a new influx of resources for people to connect online, especially during this time of isolation. Osorio recommends searching for electronic support groups with people on social media platforms or even at a healthcare facility.

Adult outpatient programs are also available online at behavioral health facilities, such as Loma Linda University Behavioral Health, where you can join mental health experts and a group of people going through similar journeys.

Pick up the phone

Osorio says it’s important to remember that loneliness and self-isolation are different. “The first one is the emotional state of feeling alone or separated, and the later references the physical separation from other people,” she says.

Anxiety levels may increase as the world is going through uncertain times, and many individuals are feeling sadness and depression made worse by being alone. Those with anxiety may feel particularly vulnerable as the world seems to be entering uncertain times. When we are anxious, it’s natural to want to be around with others, but that’s not a possibility at the time.

“One thing that helps a lot of patients with anxiety is having the opportunity to talk about their concerns out loud with someone they trust,” Osorio says. “Talking with them about the specific anxieties you may feel is one of the best ways to reduce that anxiety, as well as feelings of loneliness or boredom during isolation.”

Find ways to relax

One way to deal with the impact of social distancing is to relax your body by doing things that help you feel calm: take deep breaths, meditate, stretch, pray or do activities that bring you joy, Osorio says.

If you have an uncomfortable or stressful task, try to bookend it with more enjoyable activities, such as talking with friends or family and practicing intentional gratefulness.

“There are physical side effects of mental health issues, so doing things to relax your body can relax your mind,” she says. “Do 30 minutes of your favorite exercise, eat your favorite snack, or watch a new episode of a TV show — whatever will help you unwind,” she says.

To continue the conversation, watch Carolina Osorio's Facebook Live segment, "Senior Mental Health during COVID-19."

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, make sure they know about the Mental Health Programs at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health. Visit LLUBMC.org/MentalHealthMonth to learn more.

 

This article was originally published on the Loma Linda University Health news site