Isolation & uncertainty: what it really means & what we can do

Science

05 april 2020
Article
Since we are all expected to stay at home and self-isolate due to COVID-19 it is important to understand the psychological consequences of isolation and these current times of uncertainty.

by Maria Marica Corrente

Contributing Writer 

During these times, we are constantly bombarded with news and updates on the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. All of us probably have in mind the photos of exhausted doctors and nurses in hospitals with the marks on their faces left by their protective face masks. It would be pleonastic to reiterate that the main feelings that run through our lives, in this unusual period, are a sense of instability, uncertainty  and restlessness.  Anyone facing this emergency at times will also be pervaded by fear and the feeling of not being able to bear the pain of others every day. Let’s go deeper into the context and processes in which we are involved to better understand them: isolation, loneliness, concern for our own health and the health of the people we love, as well as the frustration of no longer being as in control of our lives.

Many people may think that humans are rational beings: our behavior is guided by the principles of logic and exact reasoning, without personal influences. None of that is true; human beings are emotional, in many more ways than we would expect.

Emotions are what primarily guides our behavior. We make choices on the base of past emotional experiences, even if we are not fully aware of it.

Moreover, human beings are very sensitive to uncertainty and we are not very resistant to uncertain situations. We are naturally led to find solutions that resolve uncertain situations in which we are unable to make predictions.  In fact, evolutionarily speaking, if we cannot predict what will happen then we do not know what the best choice to make is, therefore our chances of survival are significantly reduced. Hence, applying this to everyday life, it could be said that the quality of life can be affected by uncertainty. Furthermore, some individuals feel the need to be in control over their social and physical environment more than others. 

So, what happens if we have to face the invisible enemy over which we cannot have control? Firstly, we probably take a look back in our memory in search for similar dangerous situations we have experienced, to decide if the behavior we have adopted in that circumstance would lead to a positive outcome now as well.  “Answer not found”: a similar situation has not been experienced before in the past.  Perhaps, our grandparents who lived during the war would be able to look back and find a similar experience, but in that case the threat was clearly visible. Now, there is something that can affect everyone and on which we cannot act directly. Consequently, the first feeling is the sense of helplessness, undoubtedly.

Beyond the chaos of concerns for the future of our health and the health of others, there is also the forced isolation caused by the quarantine.

Physicians have explored how isolation, both in humans and in animals, could be very dangerous for psychological and physical wellbeing.

Isolation could have aberrant consequences on people's behavior: the lack of reference points, the flatness of space and time and the solitude that derives from it undermine psycho-physical well-being. This often leads to aggressive, self-harming behaviors, up to self-destruction as a last solution to end suffering. The isolation that we are experiencing in this period is different from a complete isolation such as that examined by previous scientific studies (isolation in prisons for example). Fortunately, most of us are at home with our family members or roommates and, thanks to technology, we can make up for social contacts, at least partly.  However, we are used to going out with friends, satisfying our need for further socialising, which is one of our primary needs, while now this is denied to us. When we have to deprive ourselves of this social satisfaction for the sake of others, in this case because of the virus, we experience both the consequences of isolation and a sense of deep frustration. 

It is worth noting, nevertheless, the situation of the homeless, the elderly, and the disabled - who are some of the most fragile and exposed categories in any emergency situation - as their solitude has become even greater in this period, as even the smallest moments of sharing are missing. Many associations have been mobilized in response to aid these more vulnerable groups, but it is not always easy in the current context, which requires us to avoid contact with other people as much as possible. 

Social and physical contact in particular brings multiple benefits: several studies have shown how a hug can release different substances in our body that promote a condition of psycho-physical wellbeing, including oxytocin, the so-called parenting hormone.

So, the main question is how long can we hold on without hugs and physical contact? For certain animals if at an early age they are separated from their maternal figure and do not receive the parental care they need - focusing mostly on physical contact rather than simply nourishment - they can suffer grave consequences leading even to death. However, how much we can conclude from this and apply to our own lives remains an open question. Most importantly, there is no need to despair! What we all can do is follow the recommendations that mental health specialists are providing, especially if you know you are susceptible to these kind of situations.

How to take care of your mental health and wellbeing: 

  • Eat well and stay hydrated: when you have to remain at home your energy needs decrease, because you are probably less active. Try to recalibrate your food habits and remember to drink at least 1.5 liters of water every day.
  • Keep in touch with people you usually see in your daily life: organize online chat sessions and feel free to share your personal feelings as a sign of trust.
  • If your home is too quiet for you, try to put on some music that you like or start listening to podcasts or even radio shows.
  • Try to stay active
  • Bringing nature into your life: spend time with the windows open, listen to natural sounds, watch pictures of your favourite places or decorate your house with that (e.g. you can put these pictures as screensavers or wallpapers of your devices).
  • Take care about the news and the information you find: if you notice you are becoming too anxious, set yourself a specific period during the day when you can watch the news and switch off the television as well as notifications from groups or websites.
  • If you feel stressed by advice over hand washing or if the current situation could cause you to have difficult feelings and behaviors about hygiene, don’t keep reading too much information about hand washing. Instead, try to set yourself limits (wash your hands for 20 seconds), try relaxation exercises and breathing exercises, plan something to do after you washed your hands, that could be useful for distracting yourself.
  • If you can’t handle your feelings please contact a specialist. They are there for you, so don’t be ashamed to ask for help!

More information available here: 

Coronavirus and your wellbeing

If you have a job which is possible to do from your home, you may be working from home a lot more than usual. You might find this situation difficult to get used to. If you have children, you may also need to look after them if they are no longer going to school or college.