Pandemic, crisis, quarantine, isolation, distance. From hearing these terms once in a while, we now hear these almost every day. We are ‘together’ in a sense of being united against COVID-19, but in our physical circumstances, we are perhaps more separate than we have ever been. Self-isolation is paramount to protecting ourselves and each other during this crisis, but the effects of prolonged isolation can be detrimental to mental health. JCU Professor of Psychology, Dr Wendy Li, shares her insight into the effects of self-isolation and the importance of protecting mental health as well as our physical health during these challenging times.
This year, we have found ourselves living in circumstances unlike anything we have ever experienced. After devastating fires that ravaged our nation, followed by extreme flooding, we are now facing an entirely new crisis. We see this crisis in empty streets, limited stock, and growing numbers in our news reports. We can’t see the virus that is causing this crisis and we can’t know what is ahead of us. We are uncertain and we are isolated. This is a combination that holds risk for our mental health.
Dr Wendy Li acknowledges the severity of our situation and points to a concept called cognitive uncertainty. “Self-isolation can definitely increase people’s anxiety,” Wendy says. “Cognitive uncertainty is correlated to anxiety. In self-isolation, people are worried about if they have contracted the virus and what it means for their health if they do contract it. This reflects what Professor David Kessler called anticipatory grief.”
Anticipatory grief refers to our emotional response to being uncertain about what the future holds. We don’t know what is ahead of us and our fear drives us to imagine the worst – we begin to grieve for an imagined time that hasn’t yet begun and may not even happen.
“Cognitively, people in self-isolation understand the deadly virus is there, but they can’t see if they have been infected by the virus,” Wendy says. “This uncertainty leads to the loss of a sense of safety, which results in escalated anxiety.”
If you are feeling this anxiety over the unknown, take a breath. Wendy emphasises that this anxious feeling is one that we can combat.
To avoid panicking or giving in to anxiety, we need to stay engaged, active, and productive – whatever that may mean for you. “People in self-isolation can help minimise anxious thoughts by staying connected to others and being positive when interacting with others,” Wendy says.
“Maintaining routine in self-isolation is not only for maintaining productivity, but also good for mental health,” Wendy says. “Routine will help restore a sense of purpose and normality during self-isolation.” Even small things like making your bed and getting ready each morning will help you to feel that sense of every-day routine – it’s especially good if you’re in self-isolation with another person, as they will likely appreciate your personal hygiene.
Wendy also points to a physical practice that can help us keep calm. “Deep breathing is a useful and an effective technique to calm our minds in self-isolation,” Wendy says. “Structuring the day to begin and end with breathing exercises will assist to start the day with peace and go to bed with comfort. Find a place where you can sit comfortably with your back straight. Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Count slowly as you exhale. This is effective in relaxing the mind and body, and thus managing anxiety.”
Staying engaged and connected with others, maintaining a routine, making time for moments of peaceful practice – these are all good ways to keep calm during this crisis and to try to bring the best out of ourselves rather than the worst. By practising ways to manage anxiety, we can better enable ourselves to focus less on the challenge of our current circumstances and more on the time that will come when the pandemic has passed. As we think on the future, we can choose to do what we can now – practising self-isolation and good hygiene, being considerate of others as we buy, treating ourselves and each other with care – that will better prepare us for the days to come.
Remember that even if we are in self-isolation, we are still in this together.
If you or someone that you know is struggling with anxiety, help is available at Beyond Blue or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14. JCU students seeking help can also book sessions with the free JCU Counselling Service.
Interested in how our mind affects our wellbeing? Check out JCU Psychology.
Studying during self-isolation and need some help? Take a look at our resources that can help you in Learning Online.
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