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Emotional Health

Mental Health After Isolation

Embracing a New Normal

Social isolation can be difficult for anyone. People are creatures of habit, and routines offer a way to promote health and wellness through structure and organization.

“Humans have a need to feel connected. During social isolation, there is a break in normal routine and feelings of connectedness among one another,” says Kirsten Book, MSN, PMHNP-BC, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

While some may be hesitant to emerge from isolation after an event like an infectious disease outbreak, others may continue to long to feel a sense of safety and normalcy again. However, a quick return to normal is likely not possible. Instead, a gradual transition back to a new normal is more likely, and many may struggle to accept it.

Human beings have a need to feel connected.
— Kirsten Book, MSN, PMHNP-BC

After a period of quarantine, flexibility will be important as communities begin to reopen, and stores and other activities begin to reactivate. Wearing masks, going to restaurants with half capacity, and watching sporting events without crowds may become the new normal, at least for a while.

“One of the big things is not to have specific expectations during a time of extreme uncertainty,”says Book.

For Those Who Are Already Anxious or Stressed

A pandemic characterized by uncertainty may disrupt the lives of many, but a person already struggling with anxiety or depression may have more intense fears fueled by the unknown.

“Social isolation is an unhealthy way to cope for someone struggling with a mental health illness because it can exacerbate symptoms of lonliness, depression or anxiety,” says Book.

Add to that the lost hours at work, remote learning with children at home and other unexpected changes, and coping becomes even more difficult in these unpredictable times.

“Not a lot of planning or forethought went into preparing for the COVID-19 crisis, and as a result, it has turned a lot of lives upside down,” says Book. “The main idea is to continue to maintain a routine to ground yourself as much as possible, expand your support system and continue doing what is already working for you. It is important to keep the focus on practicing self-care throughout this time.

Individuals who have a predisposition for depression or anxiety may also have been more likely to use unhealthy coping mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people may have relied on unhealthy habits while sheltering at home, including overeating, excessive drinking, excessive video gaming and binge TV watching.

“During a crisis, people want to numb or escape negative feelings,” explains Book. “It’s extremely overwhelming to accept we don’t have control over something, and a fear of the unknown is paralyzing to many.” For someone who is predisposed to a mental illness, adapting to unexpected changes can be particularly difficult. That’s why maintaining a routine will continue to be important, according to Book.

“Be kind to yourself in the process,” she says. “Your routine may likely not be the exact same as it was prior to the pandemic.”

A Takeaway for Everyone

Significant changes, including job loss and economic hardship, may impact people even after they return to daily routines. To help cope, consider using a concept in cognitive behavioral therapy known as reframing, which encourages you to refocus your way of thinking. Thought patterns affect your emotions. Try to think of this time as an opportunity to stop, reflect and refocus on yourself.

A pandemic is stressful for everyone. Protect your mental health by maintaining a proper sleep schedule, choosing healthy foods, and finding a routine you can follow that includes some level of physical activity and mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or yoga. Additionally, try to set goals for yourself, and adjust your expectations accordingly to avoid striving for perfection.

“Focus on what you can learn from this period of time, and ask yourself what beauty you’re cultivating,” Book says. “Perhaps you can develop new skills or hobbies that will ultimately, in the end, enhance your life.”

Above all, remember you’re not alone. If you or someone you know is a danger to themselves or others, resources are available to you.