Last night I dreamed that I was trapped in someone else’s house. I ran down winding stairs through shady corridors, past room by room with locked doors or frozen windows. There was no escape.
I woke up in a panic, fear from the dream still booming in my chest. Reflexively, I checked my phone for the time and everything else: emails, texts, likes, comments and shares on social media – the hot and cold glimmers of information we miss in our sleep. I wanted to go back to the world immediately to get rid of the discomfort the dream had caused. But no number of notifications could drown out the nagging question in my head: “How will I survive the COVID-19 winter?”
It’s a question that I feel guilty about when I think about how easy it is for me. As a result of COVID-19, millions of Americans have fallen into poverty, over 350,000 have died from the virus, and restrictions are tightening across the country.
Amid all this tragedy and turmoil, my little life looks pretty good: I’m in good physical health, have a stable income (albeit a lot less than in 2019), and a wonderful partner. But on-site protection was not without its challenges. In March, my husband and I became my mother’s surprise caregivers when her government housing complex was ravaged by COVID-19.
My husband and I rarely go out to protect them. Even though he’s managed to have a semblance of social life online with Zoom hangouts and Skype sessions, I’m completely introverted. It’s less my personality type than my mental illness type, if you will. I have an anxiety disorder and major depression that cause me to self-isolate even when a pandemic isn’t happening. I’m taking medication as prescribed to treat these conditions, but I’ve stopped taking therapy since my income dropped earlier this year.
I worry that prolonged isolation will push me over the edge in the winter months. I’m not sure what this would look like, but I have a feeling it will be about as fun as last night’s nightmare.
When you feel alone, you have company
There are legitimate reasons for concern. Research shows that social isolation can trigger or worsen depression and / or anxiety, and the CDC recognizes that social isolation can increase the risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke in people aged 50 and over. Isolation can be harmful in and of itself – but isolation from a global pandemic is becoming its own deadly animal. Mental health experts fear the worst is yet to come.
“Many believe that in the mental health field, we are facing a tsunami of hardship for what lies ahead,” said Dr. Saundra Jain, psychotherapist and member of the HealthyWomen Women’s Health Advisory Council.
“Recent data shows that one in five of those who have been cured of COVID-19 will develop mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unfortunately, even before COVID, there weren’t enough psychiatric clinicians to meet the need. So we will face real challenges. ”
And the weather doesn’t help.
“The winter season stays so dark each day that we feel like waking up in the dark, going to work all day, staying in the dark, and then retreating into isolation,” said William Schroeder, a cognitive therapist Behavior therapy. “When you remove social opportunity from the mix that people pre-COVID dealt with, metaphorically we are spinning our wheels desperately for connections.”
While some groups are at greater risk for the negative effects of social isolation (e.g. the elderly), no one is immune to loneliness – and loneliness is so often associated with social isolation that organizations like the CDC are more likely to use the terms together.
“It pays to find ways to combat loneliness in order to prevent an overwhelming feeling of isolation,” said Schröder. “We are wired for connection as humans. We feel isolated and lonely when our need for connection is not met. This can be from actual isolation (ie being ordered to protect yourself in place) or the emotional feeling of being those we are with result (i.e. engagement is a socially distant life for most of 2020). “
Brief periods of isolation and / or loneliness are usually not a big deal, but as we now all too well know, pandemic lockdowns are fairly long-term issues. Even after the COVID-19 vaccines are widely used, Dr. Anthony Fauci that we will have to distance ourselves socially and wear masks for the foreseeable future.
Dealing with isolation and loneliness
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with isolation and the loneliness that comes with it. The number one trick is to build a daily routine that is focused on being self-sufficient.
“Part of adapting to this pandemic is accepting the uncertainty and then proactively engaging in wellness-enhancing practices such as exercise, mindfulness meditation, optimized sleep, social connectedness, and optimized diet,” Jain said. “We know these practices improve depression and anxiety … and improve well-being.”
People struggling with isolation should also work on becoming aware of their thoughts, especially the bad ones.
“Watch out for ANTs or automatic negative thoughts,” advised Schröder. “We are all to blame for this at different times, but it is easy to get monsooned in negative thought cycles. This is a challenge during stressful times in life, but if you can see what is causing it or making it worse then you can try slowing down or stopping those thoughts before they get too much oomph. “
Dr. Athena Robinson, an adjunct clinical adjunct professor at Stanford School of Medicine, pointed out that it is normal to feel lonely now, so there should be no shame in accepting it. We experience loneliness “because we care for one another and our communities,” said Robinson. She vouches for self-soothing measures such as deep breathing and meditation, but notes that sometimes we just can’t fight loneliness on our own.
“If you find that loneliness is affecting you so badly that it is difficult to get out of bed, focus, or engage in daily activities, it is time to think about extra support,” said Robinson.
National Institute of Mental Health
National lifeline for suicide prevention
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSA)