One thing is certain. We won’t be going “back to normal.”
By now, it’s become extremely clear that the best way to contain the COVID-19 pandemic is for all of us to practice physical distancing and stay home.
While cases of COVID-19 are still in all 50 states, states with early shelter-in-place orders have been able to “flatten the curve” more effectively than those that haven’t.
But being stuck at home while a deadly pandemic rages outside is traumatic, says Lori Garrott, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with a certification in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Trauma occurs when we suddenly feel unsafe,” she says, “and when we feel like the people we love are unsafe and we might lose them.”
So when a pandemic of a potentially lethal virus hits, requiring weeks, or even months, of self-isolation, we’re going through a traumatic experience.
Research from past quarantines supports this idea. A quarantine is
The shelter-in-place and lockdown orders happening throughout the majority of the country might not be called quarantine, but it is, in practice, largely the same.
People are staying at home, away from many loved ones — and other than essential workers, those who haven’t lost their jobs are working from home.
The results among those studies were remarkably consistent and can give us an idea of how our situation is impacting our mental health.
What the researchers determined to be the common stresses of quarantine likely won’t be a surprise to anyone whose been self-isolating during this pandemic:
- fears of infection
- frustration and boredom
- inadequate supplies
- inadequate information
- the duration of the quarantine
One significant stressor the researchers identified after the quarantines might ring true for some of us still under quarantine: finances.
These stressors are particularly difficult, says Garrott, because they’re necessary to our survival and we don’t have any control over them.
That puts us in a crisis state, Garrott explains.
“What happens when you’re in a crisis? You go into survival mode. Your executive functioning shuts down and you can’t focus on anything other than what you need to survive.”
Garrott attributes a lot of the hoarding and panic buying we saw right before shelter-in-place or lockdown orders were given:
“When you’re in survival mode, you’re trying to make sure you and your family have what you need. When you are in the middle of a crisis or trauma, your ability to make long-term decisions is impacted.”
Even though the practical implications of hoarding can have consequences for the rest of the community, Garrott says she tries to remember those actions “are coming from a place of fear. And when people are scared, they don’t make the best decisions.”
Start by paying close attention to how you’re feeling.
“Try and notice if you’re in a highly frustrated state,” she says. “Maybe that’s telling you that you need to disengage from the news or whatever thing that’s frustrating you.”
Once you’ve disengaged, go sit somewhere quietly and practice self-soothing or distracting techniques. One of these techniques is talking back to yourself using what she calls “coping thoughts.”
“If you’re starting to think ‘oh my god, I’m going to get this,’ try to tell yourself: right now you’re fine, you’re safe, you’re healthy, and you’re taking care of yourself,” she says.
Meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can also help, Garrott adds.
“You can find 15-minute exercises all over the internet. You can literally sit down at your house, get on YouTube, and do 15 minutes of [meditation or progressive muscle relaxation], and it will help you calm down,” she says.
Given that our panicked state can arise over the feeling that we’re not in control, things that give us a small amount of control can help alleviate those feelings.
Garrott suggests things like making a schedule for the day, or a list of what you want to accomplish. These can insert some feelings of control into a situation that’s making you feel out of control.
I can’t control if my neighbors practice physical distancing, or if there will be enough toilet paper at the grocery store. And I certainly don’t have any control in deciding when this thing is over.
But I do have control over whether or not I write this article, or if I walk the dog, or whether I call to check on my grandmothers. Those small exertions of control really do help.
Once this is over — whenever that is — Garrott says we shouldn’t expect anything, including our mental health, to go back to how it was before.
“People who already have a history of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are often hit hardest by a new trauma,” she says. And it’s important to be vigilant in addressing that.
“I think everyone should be educated about the symptoms of PTSD,” she says. “If after this is over you’re noticing it’s hard for you to let go over those feelings of panic and anxiety, seek help.”
In fact, people don’t need to wait that long to get into therapy. Many therapists are now working virtually. (Get help finding a therapist here.)
Therapy will be especially important for those who work on the front lines of this pandemic. The review of quarantine studies found that following the SARS epidemic, healthcare workers had the highest rates of PTSD, avoidance behaviors, and substance use.
But surprisingly, reading the summary of those studies actually made me feel better. It reassured me that all the things I’m feeling are normal.
And even though we haven’t seen a pandemic on this scale in over 100 years, those studies also reminded me that this has happened on a smaller scale in our lifetimes.
We’re all going through this one together.
Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor for Anxy Magazine. You can find her work in Rolling Stone and the Daily Beast, among other outlets. She spent most of last year working on a documentary about the pediatric use of medical cannabis. She currently spends far too much time on Twitter, where you can follow her at @msmacb.