How to cope with the stress of being alone and isolated

COVID-19: How to cope with isolation if you're feeling stressed or lonely

12 Apr 2020

We speak to a counsellor about the effects of lock-down on mental health

If you're struggling to cope with isolation, feeling alone, like there's no hope or end in sight, you're not alone. 

The world is in a crisis and every non-essential worker in the UAE is required to stay home to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. While this is essential and necessary to do, to ensure the health of the emirates, it can also have adverse effects on people's mental health. 

We spoke to Dr. Christina Burmeister, clinical counsellor at Mediclinic City Hospital, about what the effects are, and how we can make sure we're looking after ourselves in this time. 

Isolation is important for everyone at the moment but what are the psychological ramifications?
As humans we are hard-wired to be around other humans. In order to feel safe we tend to need community. As such, being apart makes us feel threatened. Similar to hunger or thirst which make us seek out food and water, loneliness is a biological warning sign that makes us seek out other humans. Although isolation is currently what may protect us from global ramifications from COVID-19 our instincts are pulling us in the other direction.
Although we can use our intellect to suppress this instinct a lot of us will respond to this situation with high levels of stress. As research has shown, stress is often the basis of depression, anxiety and panic, among others, so we can expect to see people suffering more from these psychological issues.

Do you think we will see a significant deterioration in people's mental health in this time?
Initially people will most likely be able to suppress any major reactions to the situation for sake of the greater good. Everything is new and we are all reacting to situations as they unfold. However in time, should this situation persist, isolation and fear of virus can activate preexisting anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

Different types of people will react to the situation differently. Most simply, depending on whether people are introverts or extroverts may influence how the situation affects them. Introverts may actually do well, as they enjoy limited social interactions. Extroverts may suffer more as they need social interactions to feel safe and happy. However loneliness will most likely affect everyone in time, especially people who are living alone or generally feel isolated in their living situation.
Among other medical issues, loneliness also increases the risk of clinical depression and anxiety. One theory for this may be the absence of Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone which is produced by the body through human touch. Oxytocin helps humans feel comfortable, safe and happy. As such, research has often shown that physical touch can reduce stress and physical pain.

Be kind to yourself.
Accept feelings that come up and deal with them instead of judging them or pushing them away. Speak to people you trust genuinely about how you feel. We are all struggling through the same reactions to this situation. There is no need to be ashamed. Vulnerability increases connection and helps others open up about themselves. The more physically isolated we are the more emotionally connected we need to be.

Can you recommend some coping mechanisms people can use if they're feeling depressed, anxious or alone?
1. Keep it regular:
Normalcy and structure help make us feel safe. If you are working from home that means keeping specific work hours and taking regular breaks, this also means keeping regular sleep routines and meal times.
2. Keep up social interactions:
Stay in touch with loved ones on a regular basis. Check on friends and family regularly, as this will give everyone a feeling of connectedness. Social media, to an extent can be helpful with this as it also conveys a sense of being connected, however, it is important to avoid panic inducing posts.
3. Take care of your body:
If you're able, it is helpful to go outside and be active. Sunlight helps the body create vitamin D which has been shown to affect mood. Try to get 10 -30 minutes a few times a week, in order to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. It is also vital to continue to partake in physical activity. Since we cannot go to gyms these days this could be in the form of downloading a fitness class on line and exercising in your living room or dancing in the kitchen. It is important to continue healthy activities that you enjoy and relax. Healthy food, is especially important. As much as comfort food seems compelling in these complicated times, it usually makes us feel worse afterwards. Focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein to keep your mood up.
4. Take care of your mind:
In these confusing times it is important to get news only from trusted sources such as governmental websites or the WHO, as it is important not to get caught up in the panic. When panic does set in, it is important to ALWAYS remember that this is a temporary situation that will pass, even if we do not know when. When choosing movies or shows, it important to feed your mind with helpful content. Movies with compelling, positive content make people feel better, as do uplifting shows and movies. Steer clear of content that makes you feel more stressed or worried. Learn something new. Learning something new gives us a feeling of control.
5. Stay in the moment:
Focusing on the future and worries associated with it make us more anxious. We do not know what will happen, so it is better to stay grounded in the now. Practices like yoga, mindfulness, and guided meditation can help with anxiety and depressed mood.
6. Increase your oxytocin:
Since oxytocin is not available through human touch right now, either because of social distancing or social isolation, we have to find other ways of increasing our feel-good hormone. According to research, when physical touch is not available ways that seem to increase oxytocin are metta meditation, which enhance feelings of kindnesses and compassion for yourself and others, listening to soothing music and singing along, dancing or other physical movement, giving someone a gift or helping others, sharing a meal with family and friends virtually, feeling useful, for example with the thought that isolating yourself is protecting others. Warm and cold temperatures have been shown to increase oxytocin, so try to take warm bath followed by a cold shower and lastly, if you like animals, pets are a wonderful source of oxytocin, snuggle with a furry companion often.
7. Psychology or Psychiatry:
If the feeling of loneliness however becomes overwhelming and these normalising exercises do not seem to work, there is always the option of seeing professional help. This can be through online therapy or seeking help from a psychiatrist who can prescribe medications to get you through this difficult situation.