In the very near future, all of us will probably be placed under a mandatory “shelter in place” order akin to what’s occurred in China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, and soon, the rest of Europe. Selected communities here in the United States and even the entire state of California and New York are now under this order. Given the number of positive cases and deaths as a result of the virus are still close to doubling every day, things are going to get much worse before they get better.
This coming lock-down will make all but the most urgent travel impossible, likely under the threat of fines, imprisonment, or even force. This means we will likely be stuck in our homes for weeks, perhaps even months. This post will help spell out the psychological reality of what that will look like.
How Do We Know What Will Happen?
Psychologists and historians have been studying the effects of social isolation for decades. Whether we’re studying this stuff through past case studies, current situations where social isolation is the norm, or through controlled experiments, we’ve gotten a really good idea of what this is going to look like.
In the near future, we’re all going to be under some degree of physical danger from an invisible, incurable, unstoppable, virus, we’re likely going to be under considerable financial strain, we will likely be at least somewhat dependent on external sources for food and other supplies, social isolation and the resulting loneliness, forced small-group togetherness, and greatly restricted mobility. That’s a truly scary cocktail of bad shit.
The Diary of Anne Frank, the Mars500 project, astronauts aboard the space station, prisoners in solitary confinement, Antarctica scientists, and the experiences of people living in remote, isolated settlements… all have given us an excellent understanding of what social isolation looks like.
And, more importantly, a roadmap to navigate, survive, and even thrive in this situation.
Personally, I’ll add in some of my own experiences of living with six people (three adults, three kids under the age of 10) in a three hundred square feet RV for three years. It turns out being stuck in a small space with little kids teaches some pretty useful coping skills.
What Happens During a “Shelter In Place” Scenario?
Being isolated from our normal social interactions produces a known set of effects, including:
- Panic attacks
- Problems thinking, problem-solving, and memory
- Problems making decisions
- Loss of appetite
- Disrupted sleep patterns, usually insomnia
- Increased paranoia
- Inability to handle stress
- Lack of self-confidence
- Increase in self-criticism
- Loss of impulse control
- Suppressed immune system, thus making people more prone to illness
- Physical exhaustion
- Become less trustworthy
- Heightened sensibility to social threats
- Increased incidents of assaults and domestic violence
- Increased risk of suicide
It’s a pretty bleak list. Indeed, I was just watching a news story about an American mom living in Italy who was vlogging about the day-to-day experiences. In the first few days of the lock-down, she was happy, chipper, and optimistic. By day ten, she looked physically, mentally, and emotionally defeated. It was abundantly clear she was struggling with the conditions which could feasibly last for at last a few weeks and probably a few months.
Who Is Most At Risk?
The good news - Introverts, this is going to be easier on you. Also, people who feel competent in surviving hardships, people who are mentally and emotionally stable, and people who are socially-compatible (meaning you get along with people easily) will all experience these symptoms to a lesser degree.
That means extroverts, people who haven’t had the experience of overcoming difficult situations, those with mental and emotional issues (especially those prone to depression and/or anxiety), and folks who don’t get along well with others… all of these people are going to struggle mightily. But worry not! There are solutions.
How Can We Make This Better?
Each of these solutions listed below tend to be additive; doing one is good, two is better, and doing all of them is best. Start doing as many as you can as soon as you can.
- Become a leader. This was the impetus behind my “leadership in the midst of the pandemic” post from a few days ago. Assuming a leadership role in your community, among your social networks, or even among your family will give your life purpose during this struggle, which insulates you from a lot of the potential problems associated with social isolation.
- Get fit and stay fit. “Time” is often the most common excuse people have for avoiding exercise. Welp, now we have nothing BUT time! So take this opportunity to start a new fitness routine. I recommend lifting weights and cardio.
- Get outside as much as possible. Being outdoors is associated with all kinds of positive effects, many of which counteract the effects of social isolation. Get sun and fresh air as often as possible, even if it’s just in your own yard or a local park.
- Take on a new project. Fix something around your house. Build something. Paint a room. Do something to fill your time that involves creating.
- Learn a new skill. Preferably a skill that will help you if our economy goes into a protracted recession. Learn how to speak another language, hunt and fish, how to sew and knit, learn basic plumbing and electrical work, basic home and auto repair, how to can and other food preservation methods, sharpening and making simple tools, butchering and curing meats, gunsmithing, wine and beer-making, metal and woodworking, cheese-making, candle-making, foraging… all of these skills have real, practical value.
- Communicate with friends and family daily. Thankfully, we have the Internet. Communicate with those closest to you on a regular basis. This is even better if you use Skype, Facetime, or any other video chatting option. SEEING the person’s face when we’re chatting with them offers more positive psychological value than audio-only.
- Have a place to get away. This was an important lesson from my RV days. While social isolation is a problem, so too is spending every waking moment with the same small group of people. Find a place where you can get away from everyone else for a period of time. My kids used to use our closets. YMMV.
- Control your exposure to extreme negativity, conspiracy crap, complainers, and perpetual victims, especially on social media. Negative emotions are contagious. Stick to factual information, positive people, and people sharing actionable plans.
- Don’t be a martyr; take care of yourself. Don’t fall into the common trap of becoming a martyr. If you can’t keep yourself functioning, you’re useless to the people relying on you.
- Develop conflict-resolution skills. In confined spaces and under stress, conflicts always arise. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Here are some excellent techniques.
- Learn and practice meditation and progressive relaxation. Meditation and progressive relaxation are both excellent methods for alleviating anxiety. Practice each multiple times per day.
- Create social novelty. I had to save the best for last. We’re social animals. Part of our social behaviors is craving new social interactions. This, obviously, is tough when we see the same few faces day after day after day. This game is silly, but shockingly effective: Role-play. Yep. Dress up like different people. Act differently. Talk in a funny accent. Even though we KNOW we’re interacting with the same people, our brains still produce the same effects as it would if we were talking to new people.
There you have it. Twelve strategies to ward off the negative effects of social isolation. Use as many of these as you can as often as you can. You’ll notice a difference.
I’ll likely post more about this topic in the future, but this’ll give all of my readers a good start on mitigating the negative effects of social isolation BEFORE it gets too bad.