Around the world, public officials are asking people who have contracted or been exposed to the new coronavirus to practice social distancing, quarantine or isolation measures in an effort to slow disease’s spread.
Social distancing means keeping a safe distance (approximately 6 feet) from others and avoiding gathering spaces such as schools, churches, concert halls and public transportation.
Quarantine involves avoiding contact with others if a person has been exposed to coronavirus to see if they become ill.
Isolation involves separating an individual who has contracted COVID-19 to prevent them from spreading it to others.
Spending days or weeks at home with limited resources, stimulation and social contact can take a toll on mental health. Though controlled studies on interventions to reduce the psychological risks of quarantine and isolation are lacking, psychologists have established best practices for handling these challenging circumstances.
Here is a summary of research on social distancing, quarantine and isolation, as well as recommendations on how people can cope if asked to take such measures.
What to Expect
People asked to stay home due to illness, exposure or active community spread of COVID-19 will likely be cut off from their regular routines for at least two weeks, the estimated incubation period for the virus.
Common sources of stress during this period include a drop in meaningful activities, sensory stimuli and social engagement; financial strain from being unable to work; and a lack of access to typical coping strategies such as going to the gym or attending religious services.
Psychologists’ research has found that during a period of social distancing, quarantine or isolation, you may experience:
Fear and anxiety
You may feel anxious or worried about yourself or your family members contracting COVID-19 or spreading it to others. It’s also normal to have concerns about obtaining food and personal supplies, taking time off work or fulfilling family care obligations. Some people may have trouble sleeping or focusing on daily tasks.
Depression and boredom
A hiatus from work and other meaningful activities interrupts your daily routine and may result in feelings of sadness or low mood. Extended periods of time spent at home can also cause feelings of boredom and loneliness.
Anger, frustration or irritability
The loss of agency and personal freedom associated with isolation and quarantine can often feel frustrating. You may also experience anger or resentment toward those who have issued quarantine or isolation orders or if you feel you were exposed to the virus because of another person’s negligence.
If you are sick or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, you may feel stigmatized by others who fear they will contract the illness if they interact with you.
Older adults, people with pre-existing mental health conditions and health-care workers helping with the response to the coronavirus may have an increased risk of experiencing psychological distress when they engage in social distancing, quarantine or isolation.
People with disabilities who require specialized diets, medical supplies, assistance from caregivers and other accommodations are also at risk for psychological challenges during a pandemic because of the increased difficulties in receiving the care they require.
How to Cope
Fortunately, psychological research also points to ways to manage these difficult conditions. Before social distancing, quarantine or isolation orders are enacted, experts recommend planning ahead by considering how you might spend your time, who you can contact for psychosocial support and how you can address any physical or mental health needs you or your family may have.
Read more: Keeping Your Distance to Stay Safe