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Slowing the spread of the coronavirus is a group effort. In order to #FlattenTheCurve, we all need to do our part — by staying apart. As a result, a sizable chunk of the American workforce is now working from home, and probably will be for a while.
Government agencies, universities and tech firms, among other organizations, have either suspended business as usual or told all employees to telecommute. It’s the right thing to do, since recommended social-distancing measures are vital for successful disease mitigation. But while keeping healthy people siloed off from one another is in the interest of public health, it may not be a boon to mental health. A combination of anxiety over the pandemic, coupled with feelings of isolation, could be a recipe for significant stress and psychological strain.
“We should be taking mental health as seriously as we are taking physical health right now,” says Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of the national non-profit Mental Health America. “In other words, we should neither overreact nor under-react to the threat of the virus. Most people — including the vast majority of people who get it — will not die from COVID-19, but we are all taking precautions to limit its spread and reduce the chances that we will be one of those who get it. It’s the same for mental health. Most people will not suffer any debilitating consequences from worrying about COVID-19, but those who are at greater risk could see worry transform into clinical anxiety or PTSD.”
“There’s a range of emotions and reactions that people will experience due to the practice of social distancing.”
Social isolation and the loneliness that often accompanies it carry serious health risks. Research has linked social isolation to high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier this month, a large study in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found a link between social isolation and bodily inflammation.
“There’s a range of emotions and reactions that people will experience due to the practice of social distancing,” says psychologist Krystal Lewis, with the National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety and depression symptoms may increase in people who already have those diagnoses. And for those who don’t, the possibility of getting sick and uncertainty of how long this will all last can foment a general sense of anxiety. “It’s important to have coping mechanisms in place,” Lewis says, “and avoid potentially harmful behaviors such as drinking alcohol, excessive news-watching, over-eating and poor hygiene.”
Employees of various companies in China have told stories of their bosses asking for selfies throughout the day, or requiring them to turn on their webcam live streams during work hours, in an effort to make sure they aren’t living in their pajamas. While that might seem a little Big Brother-y, the essential parts of the approach — encouraging people to get out of bed, get dressed for the outside world, and work their usual hours — can create healthy parameters for people working from home.
Keeping a routine, mental health experts say, is a key piece of maintaining a sense of normalcy. “Make sure you are taking care of yourself,” says Lewis. “Eating properly, staying hydrated, exercising and moving around, and getting enough sleep.”
And take measures to keep up human interactions, however you can.
“People need human contact,” says Gionfriddo. “As we move from hugging and hand-shaking to elbow-bumping or nodding, we lose a lot of that. That’s less comforting and more isolating in ways that social media cannot fully replace.”
But social media, at least in small doses, may take the edge off, he adds, by giving us a way to stay in touch with friends. He also recommends switching from texting to voice or video calls to feel more connected to people. The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of maintaining social networks in a list of mental-health considerations for the COVID-19 outbreak outlined on their website. They also recommend limiting news consumption, and relying on health professionals for information (as opposed to “your sister’s college roommate now living in Milan,” or anonymous internet commenters or a TikTok star).
“Read and sleep, be hopeful, and make some plans for six months down the road to keep looking forward.”
“Anxiety is the mental health elephant in the room,” says Gionfriddo. An uptick in the number of people taking an anxiety screening test on the Mental Health America website, he notes, has “corresponded directly to the growing fears about the virus.” Many of those people, the screening tool reveals (anonymously), have severe clinical anxiety, which almost always merits treatment.
“Ultimately, it is important to seek help from a professional to help manage ongoing, persistent anxiety,” Lewis adds.
Sitting down with a therapist might not be a readily available option right now, particularly in parts of the country hit hardest by the coronavirus. But many mental healthcare providers are now offering remote care via telehealth and phone sessions, at least for the duration of the pandemic. Online therapy services like BetterHelp and TalkSpace have seen an uptick in demand over the last month, not only from patients in the US but Europe and Asia too.
To manage anxiety at home, when you feel it coming on, Gionfriddo recommends stress-relief activities: deep breathing, walking, doing an at-home workout, meditating and even cleaning out a closet. “Whatever works for you,” he says. “Read and sleep, be hopeful, and make some plans for six months down the road to keep looking forward.”
It’s helpful to focus on things that are within your control. Echoing Lewis and the WHO, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends putting limits on news consumption, as well as taking time to walk in nature (if you’re able to) and practicing mindfulness. “When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back to the present moment,” psychologist Doreen Marshall writes.
Still, for many Americans, working at home isn’t an option. We’re already seeing coronavirus-connected job loss, with hotel workers, food service employees and drivers at the Port of Los Angeles being laid off or sent home without pay. A wave of lay-offs and forced job hiatuses will lead to even more people stuck in their houses and apartments, some alongside their school-aged children.
All of this creates more stress. Lewis says the first step to restoring a sense of calm is what she calls “disrupting anxiety.” That means talking to loved ones, “challenging anxious, irrational thoughts,” and employing calming techniques.
“The mental health side of this could easily be more important in the long run than the physical health side of this,” Gionfriddo says. “The virus will ebb in time, and physically, things will probably be back to normal in a few weeks or months. But the mentally, the effects will linger if left untreated and worsen over time. And we could pay a huge long-term price if we don’t take them seriously.”