Public health experts have said it time and time again in recent weeks: social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic can save lives.
As the U.S. shifts to this new reality, mental health clinicians are sharing a slightly different message with the same desired outcome.
That new message involves tweaking the phrase social distancing to physical distancing to help the public understand that there are ways to feel connected to those in our lives, despite being physically distant, says Lynn Bufka, senior director at American Psychological Association.
The question is, how do we maintain social contact, Bufka said. Its going requires us being a little more creative about how we do it.
The spread of coronavirus in the U.S. is prompting unprecedented changes to daily life and potentially sickening millions. More than 214,000 people worldwide have the disease, including 7,000 people in the U.S. But experts warn the response to the virus is sure to take a toll on our collective mental health as we look to distance ourselves from others, experts warn.
Social isolation can be a risk factor for depression, said Lisa Smith, director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, so I think it will be most advantageous if we considered social distancing to mean physical (distance), and not inter-personal.
The World Health Organization issued guidance to help protect mental health, noting that the worldwide outbreak is generating stress in the population. The WHO recommends avoiding news about the outbreak that causes people to feel distressed or anxious, as well as eating healthy and getting enough sleep.
Overall, people are going to be experiencing more stress than usual as a result of the virus and the new restrictions, Bufka said. Some individuals will do okay, and some will generally being doing okay, but this could be the thing that pushes them into experiencing more stress.
While keeping a safe distance away from others, its important to maintain our physical and emotional health, Bufka said.
Here are some self-care tips:
Bufka says a daily routine will be critical to managing life in isolation. If you are working from home, this means setting up a time to focus on your job responsibilities so as to have time for regular activity.
When your work is in your home, it is easy for (it) to be never-ending, Bufka said.
Children, in particular, need routine, Bufka said. Families with young children or teenagers should ensure they allocate time for regular exercise, healthy eating and enough sleep.
Its most helpful to set an alarm and wake up a specific time in the morning, and to avoid staying up late, if possible.
Diet, exercise and sleep provide the foundation for good mood and good mental health, Smith said.
Mental health experts have long warned about the dangers of overindulging in technology. Now, as the spread of COVID-19 has forced schools, companies and governments to transition to remote environments, it is vital that communities harness the power of technology to connect people and stay in touch, Smith says.
Were losing that in-person, external structure to our day, and that can have an impact on your mood and anxiety, Smith said You lose that casual contact ... like bumping into people in school, at work, during fitness classes or at the the gym. Thats going to be a loss for us temporarily.
Smith says that while staying connected via technology lacks some of the social cues of in-person communication, like eye contact, for example, video-conferencing with friends and family or engaging in discussion over social media can help people cope with feelings of isolation.
Whether youre currently working or not, with widespread closures in virtually all realms of life, chances are youre going to have some extra time on your hands when distancing yourself.
Its likely you will have time that you didnt necessarily have before, Bufka said. Its times like these that you can ask, what are some things that I really like to do, but havent had the time for?
If youve wanted to learn a new craft, its worth considering whether its possible to order the supplies in the present climate. If you want to learn a new skill, and you dont have the resources in your own home to begin learning, you might explore whether there are communities transitioning to virtual networks that you could join.
Many colleges and universities also offer online classes, including all eight of the schools making up the prestigious Ivy League Harvard, Yale, Princeton , Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth and Columbia.
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