By Rob Saint Laurent, M.Ed.
It’s May, and the coronavirus continues to weigh heavily on hearts and minds, as the nation continues to hear of the continuous and inevitable surge in infections.
No one is certain how long social distancing measures will be needed if the proposed national extension of May 4 is rescinded, and so we walk the tightrope of enduring anxiousness.
Because of the virus’ predicted seasonality, a recent (non-peer-reviewed) study by Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, suggests that unless vaccines, drug therapies, and/or aggressive quarantines can be implemented, intermittent physical distancing may need to extend into 2022 for the US to stay within its critical care capacity.
In the wake of extended social isolation and its fallout to the economy, it is the impact on mental health. A recent March 25-30 tracking poll, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found 45 percent of Americans now feel an adverse psychological impact from the pandemic—a 13 percent rise from March 11-15.
Even before the coronavirus, the incidence of loneliness had already reached epidemic proportions in the US. A 2018 national survey by Cigna found that at least 40 percent of 20,000 Americans felt their social relationships were sometimes or always non-meaningful, while nearly 50 percent said they sometimes or always felt lonely or socially isolated. Youngest adults were most susceptible.
Meanwhile, as people reel from the uncertainty of lost income with many confined to living in close proximity, there have been increasing reports of domestic violence worldwide.
EFFECTS OF LONELINESS
It’s possible to be socially isolated and not feel lonely. But for those who now find themselves physically and psychologically abandoned, the impact of loneliness could be significant.
An extensive 2015 analysis of previous research on chronic loneliness suggested that the impact of having no social connections is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or using excessive alcohol. Said one of the authors, “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increases the risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”
In a 2016 public health study, a 30 percent increase in stroke or coronary heart disease risk was linked to loneliness. According to the author, “Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits. Additionally, loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep, and, in turn, harm the body.”
Loneliness can also exacerbate depression or anxiety, and was linked in a 2019 Florida State University study, to a 40 percent increase in dementia risk.
The largest study to date, a 2019 American Cancer Society study of nearly 600,000 US adults, found that every race had an increase of death from every cause due to social isolation, with risk doubling for African-Americans and rising 60-84 percent for Caucasians. The authors noted that the effect of social isolation is “very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care, and physical inactivity.”
Living in a small environment can compound matters. Prisoners living in solitary confinement or people kidnapped and held in tight spaces report increases in anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, and inability to think clearly. Overall mental weakening during isolation in tight quarters and long-term mental health issues after release, often result.
ALONE BY PROFESSION
Witnessing images of today’s eerily empty city streets is reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone inaugural episode,
“Where Is Everybody?” Originally airing in 1959, an astronaut who has forgotten his identity thinks he is dreaming as he walks through a town with signs of life everywhere, but no people to be found. He is anxious to find someone to talk to and becomes paranoid that he is being watched. His delusion reaches a climax when he remembers that he’s in the Air Force standing inside an abandoned theater with a war movie playing on the screen. He panics, running out onto the street to a pedestrian call button, which turns out to be a panic button. We learn that in actuality, he is Air Force Sergeant Mike Ferris, who has been in an isolation booth and has just failed a psychological fitness test for a one-person trip to the moon. The town was simply a hallucination from sensory deprivation.
NASA has done much research on the psychological effects of isolation during long-distance space travel. Said Human Research Program Director William Paloski, Ph.D., “Isolation and confinement is like being alone in a cramped space. And that feeling worsens over time. The longer and longer a person stays in that kind of environment, there is a potential for bigger and bigger problems.”
To endure social distancing, two former astronauts offer a handful of down-to-earth tips.
See the forest for the trees and be realistic. Though we don’t know how long social distancing will last, unlike the length of a space mission, astronauts advise maintaining perspective. All of our actions are helping to save lives.
Keep your mind busy. Just as astronauts are kept very busy, people in self-isolation must find ways to keep their minds occupied. Start a new project or learn a new skill, like a foreign language, for instance.
Keep your body busy. Like the mind, the body must also be kept active to avoid deterioration (muscle atrophy). Astronauts are required to exercise daily, which also helps to stimulate the mind and protect mental health. Many indoor exercise options need no space or equipment.
Remember your neighbor. Simply checking in with people to say “hi” and “I’m thinking of you” can go a long way to combating the loneliness of social distancing.
For those living in close quarters with agitated loved ones or roommates, ex-submarine commander Ryan Ramsey advises that conflict management is essential to life in a close environment. He offers sage advice for the crew of COVID-19.10
Have a routine. Once settled into a routine and each step is carefully adhered to, weeks will turn into months.
Clean. It’s essential to incorporate cleaning and proper hygiene into one’s daily routine and not let one’s standards
slip while stuck at home.
Give yourself a reprieve. It’s important to take a break from all the news and uncertainty to reduce anxiety.
Nip conflict in the bud. It’s inevitable in close confines, as we encounter things about our shipmates that now become annoying to us. These situations must be “de-escalated” as soon as possible.
Talk it out. Communicating is likely most important, says commander Ramsey. Talking to those in your house, or calling others if you’re alone, is “absolutely vital” to enduring self-isolation.
See the light. Unlike submariners, we can take in the sunshine and fresh air and go for a walk, even if only in the yard to maintain social distancing.
He concludes, “We’ve got to look for the positives throughout all of this. We’ve got a bunch of the best people trying to sort this out…we’ve got to be part of the solution.”
SHADES OF 1918
While modern tech allows us to reach out and touch someone in ways unimaginable a century ago, screens still are no substitute for interpersonal contact, and there’s an emptiness that follows.
Noah Kim of The Atlantic explains that during the 1918 flu pandemic, Americans also struggled with the sudden loss of strong community ties and alternated between panic one moment and humor the next as cities went into lockdown and life came to a standstill. Like many in isolation and lonely today, people then experienced the pandemic alone in their homes, their loneliness worsened by fear and mistrust of each other, and the official narrative on the severity of the disease. Feeling alienated without that trust and with no physical contact, they were forced to rely on themselves.
This loneliness and mistrust mainly persisted for some time after the pandemic, with people recalling that no one visited one another or had social gatherings, and just didn’t seem as friendly.
How Americans recover from the current pandemic and integrate back into a healthy life, and whether this crisis permanently impacts the vast numbers of people already feeling very alone, remains to be seen.
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