Helping Give Away Psychological Science/Coping with social isolation
What this is: This page organizes resources and general information about coping with social isolation and the loneliness and stress that it can create. The topic is especially important as we deal with quarantines and social distancing as ways of responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
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Physical distancing slows down the spread of contagious diseases, flattening the curve of new cases. It also changes our social routines, and it is easy for physical separation to turn into social isolation and loneliness. Less social connection often means less sense of support, and worsens the stress and anxiety.
There are many things we can do to avoid feeling cut off from other people.
Mental Health Resources
Many people feel some degree of anxiety when thinking about the outbreak of infectious diseases. The resources in this section may be helpful for reducing these worries.
Coping with anxiety
Keep things in perspective
Take a deep breath, and remember that the number of confirmed infections in the U.S. is extremely low compared to number of people in the country. The fact that there is a great deal of news coverage on this issue does not necessarily mean that it presents any threat to you or your family. There are other things that are statistically more likely to be dangerous (such as car accidents) that are not getting major news attention.
Get the facts
It is helpful to adopt a more clinical and curious approach as you follow news reports about the virus. To that end, you will want to find a credible source you can trust. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a webpage dedicated to information on the coronavirus outbreak. You may also find useful information from local or state public health agencies or even your family physician. We have gathered a lot of these together on a page for the corona virus/COVID-19 here.
Communicate with your children
Discuss the news coverage of the coronavirus with honest and age-appropriate information. Parents can also help allay distress by focusing children on routines and schedules. Remember that children will observe your behaviors and emotions for cues on how to manage their own feelings during this time.
Maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress. Feel free to share useful information you find on governmental websites with your friends and family. It will help them deal with their own anxiety.
Seek additional help
Individuals who feel an overwhelming nervousness, a lingering sadness, or other prolonged reactions that adversely affect their job performance or interpersonal relationships should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers can help people deal with extreme stress. These professionals work with individuals to help them find constructive ways to manage adversity.
Coping with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Germ Phobia
The news can feel stressful or overwhelming. It can be even harder to keep in perspective if we already were anxious, and especially if we were anxious or obsessed about germs. It is a challenge to balance realistic steps for safety versus doing things to keep a sense of control and progress dealing with anxiety. The following tips come from Shala Nicely, LPC, Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, and Reid Wilson, PhD:
It’s tempting to check news constantly to see how the situation is developing. To combat compulsive checking, restrict your news intake to a frequency and duration that works for you. For instance, you might only check once a day for a maximum of 5 minutes, or once a week you might watch the evening news, or you might decide not to check news at all. Do whatever is most useful for you (and not for OCD).
If you’re planning to travel to a region affected by the virus, identify dates by which you need to make travel decisions and whether travel providers might waive change fees. It’s likely that the information you’ll need to make decisions will be information released just prior to your decision-making dates. Therefore, give yourself permission not to constantly check the news or ask others’ opinions to try to “figure out” which way the situation will go, as frequent checking and reassurance seeking can cause more anxiety without an increase in useful information.
If it seems like OCD is trying to make your decisions and you’re travelling with someone whom you trust who doesn’t have OCD, you could observe how that person is making decisions and try to follow their lead. While your travel companions may also have anxiety, if they don’t have OCD, they are going to be more likely to make decisions based on current facts, not on OCD “what ifs?”
Many people in OCD treatment are trying to reduce compulsive cleaning rituals, and those in recovery may have handwashing and other cleanliness routines that are less stringent than the average American because they are trying to keep contamination compulsions in check. However, because of the present situation, give yourself permission to follow current guidelines being recommended by authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC and the WHO have the knowledge to be making these recommendations. OCD, no matter what it says, does not. Your goal is to restrict yourself to following valid recommendations (again, that counts out OCD). For instance, you could wash your hands as directed by the CDC/WHO but no more than that. OCD isn’t going to like this, so following the recommendations becomes your exposure and response prevention (ERP) exercise. Further, the feeling of dirtiness/grossness/contamination may still linger even after you’ve done the recommended wash, giving you an opportunity to practice allowing those feelings to be there without doing compulsions.
Here’s a way to frame these exercises to keep this whole situation in perspective. If you were a medical professional who had contamination OCD, you would still follow your profession’s procedures for germ prevention, even if you were in OCD treatment. But to keep your OCD in check, you’d want to do no more than what your profession says you’re supposed to do. Medical professionals with OCD work to manage this every day, and we’re joining them while valid authorities tell us these protective measures are necessary.
Recognize that if you’re anxious about coronavirus, that’s normal and you’re not alone. The situation is making many people fearful, even people who don’t have OCD. Allow yourself to feel anxious and realize that your anxiety might not go away while the situation is still unfolding.
Be compassionate with yourself if you’re experiencing an increase in OCD symptoms. It’s not your fault! Do what you can to keep your compulsions in check without trying to be perfect. If you need support, schedule a booster session with your therapist or reach out to a support group like the International OCD Foundation’s My OCD Community.
You can do this!
The coronavirus situation is scary because there’s so much about it that’s uncertain. But if you’ve done ERP for OCD, you have above average skills in managing uncertainty and anxiety. You’re actually more prepared to handle all the unknowns than people who haven’t done ERP. While you may be scared and OCD may act up, remember that when it comes to anxiety and uncertainty, you’ve got this!
Children with developmental needs
Children with developmental needs experience extra difficulty with transitions due to the change in day-to-day activities. This section focuses on a broad array of resources that parents can use, and is followed is a list of resources to help parents with these potential challenges.
1. Reminders for parents
- Keep a structured routine. Include opportunities to be active in preferred activities, intertwined with less preferred tasks. Also, maintain existing daily care routines, like sleeping and mealtime.
- Plan gradual transitions. These steps should meet the pace of your child's needs.
- Visual supports. Those can be used to communicate routines and daily activities.
- Provide sensory "breaks". Those include opportunities for sensory input, movement, or sensory breaks.
2. Stopping germs / Washing hands
- Handwashing Song
- Stopping the Spread of Germs
- Washing your hands
3. Social stories
- Pandemics and the Coronavirus
- For children
- For adolescents/adults
- No School Today
- We Have To Stay Home
4. Visual Schedules / Transitions
- Visual Schedules: Practical Guide for Families
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) educational resources
- Building Blox
Mental health wellness tips
- Stick to a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at a consistent, reasonable time. Write a schedule that is varied and includes time for work and self-care.
- Dress for the social life you want, not the one you have. Get showered and dressed in comfortable clothes, wash your face, brush your teeth. It's amazing how our dress can impact our mood.
- Get out at least once a day, for at least thirty minutes. If you are concerned about contact, try first think in the morning, or later in the evening, and try less traveled streets. If you are high risk or living with those who are high risk, open the windows and blast the fan. It is amazing how much fresh air can do for spirits.
- Find some time to move each day, whether it consists of going outside, or using YouTube videos for free movement classes.
- Reach out to others, at least once daily for thirty minutes. Try to do FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting - connect with others to seek and provide support. If you have children, set up virtual play dates via FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Kids, Zoom, etc.
- Stay hydrated and eat well. Drink plenty of water, eat some good and nutritious foods, and challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new.
- Develop a self-care toolkit. This can look different for everyone. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, vestibular (movement), and proprioceptive (comforting pressure)). An idea for each: a soft blanket or stuffed animal, a hot chocolate, photos of vacations, comforting music, lavender or eucalyptus oil, a small swing or rocking chair, a weighted blanket. A journal, an inspirational book, or a mandala coloring book is wonderful, bubbles to blow or blowing watercolor on paper through a straw are visually appealing as well as work on controlled breath. Mint gum, Listerine strips, ginger ale, frozen starburst, ice packs, and cold are also good for anxiety regulation. For kids, it is great to help them create a self-regulation comfort box (shoe-box or bin they can decorate) that they can use on the ready for first-aid when overwhelmed.
- Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth. A lot of cooped up time can bring out the worst in everyone. Each person will have moment when they will not be at their best. It is important to move with grace through blowups, to not show up to every argument you are invited to, and to not hold grudges and continue disagreements. Everyone is doing the best they can to make it through this.
- Everyone find their own retreat space. Space is at a premium, particularly with city living. it is important that people think through their own separate space for work and for relaxation. For kids, help them identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents, and "forts." It is good to know that every when we are on top of each other, we have our own special place to go to be alone.
- Expect kids to act out, and respond gently. We are all struggling with disruption in routine, none more than children, who rely on routines constructed by others to make them feel safe and to know what comes next. Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits, and meltdowns. Do not introduce behavioral plans or consequences at this time - hold stable and focus on emotional connection.
- Focus on safety and attachment. We are going to be living for a bit with the unprecedented demand of meeting all work deadlines, homeschooling children, running a sterile household, and making a whole lot of entertainment in confinement. We can get wrapped up in meeting expectations in all domains, but we must remember that these are scary and unpredictable times for children. Focus on strengthening the connection through time spent following their lead, through physical touch, through play, through therapeutic books, and via verbal reassurances that you will be there for them in this time.
- Lower expectations and practice radical self-acceptance. We are doing too many things in this moment, under fear and stress. This does not make a formula for everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. You cannot fail at this - there is no roadmap, no precedent for this, and we are all truly doing the best we can in an impossible situation.
- Limit social media and COVID conversation, especially around children. One can find tons of information on COVID-19 to consume, and it changes minute to minute. The information is often sensationalized, negatively skewed, and alarmist. Find a few trusted sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume (again 30 mins tops, 2-3 times daily). Keep news and alarming conversations our of earshot from children - they see and hear everything, and can become very frightened by what they hear.
- Notice the good in the world, and the helpers. There is a lot of scary, negative, and overwhelming information to take in regarding this pandemic. There are also a ton of stories of people sacrificing, donating, and supporting one another in miraculous ways. It is important to counter-balance the heavy information with the hopeful information.
- Help others. Find ways, big and small, to give back to others. Support restaurants, offer to grocery shop, check in with elderly neighbors, write psychological wellness tips for others - helping others gives us a sense of agency when things seem out of control.
- Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it. In moment of big uncertainty and overwhelm, control your little corner of the world. Organize your bookshelf, purge your closet, put together that furniture, group your tows. It helps to anchor and ground us when the bigger things are chaotic.
- Find a long-term project to dive into. Now is the time to learn how to play the keyboard, put together a jigsaw puzzle, start a 15 hour game of Risk, paint a picture, read the Harry Potter series, binge watch an 8-season show, crochet a blanket, solve a Rubik's cube, or develop a new town in Animal Crossing. Find something that will keep you busy, distracted, and engaged in take breaks from what is going on in the outside world.
- Move. Engage in repetitive movements and left-right movements. Research has shown that repressive movement (knitting, coloring, painting, clay sculpting, jump roping, etc) especially left-right movement (running, drumming, skating, hopping) can be effective at self-soothing and maintaining self-regulation in moments of distress.
- Find an expressive art and go for it. Our emotional brain is very receptive to the creative arts, and it is a direct portal for release of feeling. Find something that is creative (sculpting, drawing, dancing, music, singing, playing) and give it your all. See how relieved you can feel. It is a very effective way of helping kids to emote and communicate as well.
- Find lightness and humor in each day. There is a lot to be worried about, and with good reason. Counterbalance this heaviness with something funny each day: cat videos on YouTube, a stand-up show on Netflix, a funny movie - we all need a little comedic relief on our day, every day.
- Reach out for help - your team is there for you. If you have a therapist or psychiatrist, they are available to you even at a distance. Keep up your medications and your therapy sessions the best you can. If you are having difficulty coping, seek out help for the first time. There are mental health people on the ready to help you through this crisis. Your children's teacher and related service providers will do anything within their power to help, especially for those parents tasked with the difficult task of being a whole treatment team to their child with special challenges. Seek support groups of fellow home-schoolers, parents, and neighbors to feel connected. There is help and support out there, any time of the day - although we are physically distant, we can always connect virtually.
- "Chunk" your social distancing, take it moment by moment. We have no road map for this. We don't know what this will look like in 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month from now. Whether that be 5 minutes, a day, or a week at a time - find what feels doable for you, and set a time stamp for how far ahead in the future you will let yourself worry. Take each chunk one at a time, and move through stress in pieces.
- Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It seems in the midst of this quarantine that it will never end. It is terrifying to think of the road stretching ahead of us. Please take time to remind yourself that although this is very scary and difficulty, and will go on for an undetermined amount of time, it is a season of life and it will pass. We will return to feeling free, safe, busy, and connected in the days ahead.
- Find the lesson. This whole crisis can seem sad, senseless, and at times avoidable. When psychologists work with trauma, a key feature to helping someone through said trauma is to help them find their agency, the potential positive outcomes they can affect, the meaning and construction that can come out of destruction. What can each of us learn here, in big and small ways, from this crisis? What needs to change in ourselves, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world?
Some fun and helpful links:
Tiny Desk Concerts From NPR - the ones featured in the link are supposed to help with calm, which we could also use a little of right now: https://www.npr.org/2020/03/19/818079150/5-tiny-desk-concerts-to-calm-your-mind
The following section contains information specific to specific national or international health crises, organized by name.
On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared an outbreak of a novel coronavirus designated SARS-CoV-2 (also known as 2019-nCoV). The disease caused by the virus has been named COVID-19. The epicenter of the outbreak was the city of Wuhan, in the Hubei Province of China, though cases now have been reported worldwide. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has an interactive tracking site, showing updated information about cases around the world.
- IFRC: information about the IFRC's efforts to combat COVID-19 including background information about the virus and its spread worldwide
- APA: podcast about Coronavirus Anxiety
- Johns Hopkins University: The hospital is maintaining a coronavirus resource page with daily status reports and information about how to protect yourself from the virus
- USA Today: article about airlines waiving change fees; many hotels, vacation rentals, and other companies are also offering a lot more flexibility in canceling or rescheduling travel.
COVID-19 general tips, information, and resources