Coronavirus pandemic: How to cope with stress, anxiety and isolation during quarantine
Realizing that lockdowns and quarantines are not going to be here forever and that it is short-term is important, says an expert
The deadly coronavirus can do more than just affecting people physically. It has the potential of leaving behind mental scars, especially among those forced into lockdowns or placed under quarantines — isolated from the rest of the physical world.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) labeling coronavirus a pandemic, the threat appears more real. "Because it makes it real, it can increase worries and anxieties. With increased worries and fears, we may also see an increase in feelings of depression," Dr Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
It is not atypical to be struck by anxiety during a crisis. When the virus was raging in China, a survey by the Chinese Psychology Society revealed that about 43% of the 18,000 participants experienced anxiety.
"For a lot of people, a day or two in isolation may be OK, but weeks without getting out of the house — the stress will certainly build-up," Paul Yin, a psychologist who is helping insurance companies spread information on how to cope mentally with the outbreak, tells NBC news.
"Every day you are being reminded that life is not normal, constantly, you can't escape — you can't pretend that it's not there," he adds.
But all is not lost. There are ways to combat stress and depression, explains Gurwitch.
Most importantly, she explains that people should recognize that there is hope even in times of a pandemic, and even when this virus is at its worst. For example, China, she adds, is seeing a decrease in daily cases because of measures including imposing travel restrictions, locking down cities and other control measures that have been taken.
Realizing that lockdowns and quarantines are not going to be here forever and that it is short-term is important, she says.
What are the signs to watch out for?
"Some of the things that we often see is that we have trouble sleeping. We are thinking about this all the time. We may have problems with our attention and concentration. And it also can spill over into our patience. So we become less patient with ourselves, with our children and with our family members," Gurwitch explains.
"And sometimes, tempers are a little shorter, we may be a little curt with how we talk to each other," she adds. Children experiencing stress show behavioral problems, including temper tantrums and meltdowns.
Some people might also experience physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate or an upset stomach, according to experts.
Misinformation feeds into bad behavior, especially targeting those from a particular race or ethnicity. Recently, a 23-year-old man from Singapore was attacked in the UK. He told the BBC that a group of four men told him “we don’t want your coronavirus in our country”, and then punched and kicked him. Left with a broken bone near his right eye, the man might need surgery.
“When people react out of strong emotion, they can make quick, irrational choices,” Dr Alison Holman, associate professor in the school of nursing at UC Irvine and expert in health psychology, tells Quartz. “There are people who are already prejudiced, and so something like this just reinforces the assumptions and stereotypes they may have in their minds about a particular group of people," she adds.
Moreover, racism can affect self-esteem, causes losses in a psychological sense, and promotes a sense of helplessness.
What can trigger it?
One crucial factor is the lack of a single and unified message. "Your public health messenger becomes even more important to share important information so that all of the residents are hearing the same thing. Anxieties and worries go up when you have multiple messages," Gurwitch adds.
For instance, in February, one public health expert said that people in the US were getting conflicting messages: as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the coronavirus spread in the US is inevitable, Trump downplayed it by calling the situation under control. This can create confusion among people, Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown who has advised the World Health Organization on pandemic preparedness, told Business Insider.
The other major factor is misinformation. "From claims the virus is part-HIV to conspiracy theories about bioweapons and reports suggesting the virus was linked to people eating bat soup, stories sparking fear seem to have overtaken the outbreak in real life," Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist and the author of 'The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop', writes in the Guardian.
What can we do?
Constantly checking news and updates can be overwhelming to many. "Probably one of the most important things that we can do is to take a break from all of this. That means turning off media, social media, news, radios. Take a break, giving yourself some time," says Gurwitch.
She says that people can keep themselves occupied by watching movies, listening to music, reading a book, journaling, playing games, and practicing yoga and mindfulness. "We know that getting up and moving around is also important during these times," she explains.
In times of stress, she advises that people should maintain their sleep schedule and eat on time. Sticking to our routines and realizing that there are ways for life to continue as usual as possible is helpful.
Dr. Gurwitch also highlighted that maintaining connectedness is crucial to keeping increased anxieties at bay. "But that does not mean you should reach out to people by going out to large gatherings," she says.
People can rely on technology to stay connected. "Lockdowns or mandatory quarantine doesn't impact our internet or our phones. I can see my loved ones on FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp or any of those kinds of applications," she explains.
People should also reach out for help. During lockdowns, it helps to have a list of helplines, a list of our health care and mental health care systems.
How can we protect children?
Adults can help children cope with stress by talking to them and acknowledging their fears. Talking them out of it by saying "don't be scared" or "don't be worried" does not help. "When has that ever worked for us as adults?" Gurwitch asks.
Besides, children tend to open up during such conversations. This will help parents educate children on how to can keep themselves safe.
"When we can have these conversations with our children, about something as difficult as this, it increases the likelihood that our children will talk to us about other difficulties they may face," she explains.
Gurwitch and colleagues have put together a set of guidelines that can help parents support children. You can find the link here. The WHO has also released a set of guidelines that include specific advice for health-care workers, caretakers of children or older adults, and people in isolation. You can find it here.