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Isolation and Loneliness During Social Distancing

Quarantine.Isolation . Lockdown.

Who could have ever predicted that these words – so often associated with scary movies or rare, brief safety emergencies – would become so commonplace in our social language? The terms, themselves, being so casually thrown around that we’ve nearly become numb to their actual magnitude? The concept of loneliness is a broad one: certainly, this can describe distance or literal, geographical separation from others; however, it is also quite possible to experience loneliness while physically surrounded by people. This often arises in response to feeling misunderstood or “different” from those around us, or through a belief that we are truly alone in our struggles and suffering.

 

When in this state of mind, it’s easy to inadvertently fall into self-destructive patterns and habits that further worsen the depth of isolation we experience. This tends to be easier to “catch” in the “normal” world – someone is missing days at work or school, not showing up to family events, skipping appointments. However, in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, this has become more difficult to identify, both in ourselves and in family members or friends. In this strange new reality, maladaptive coping might present through symptoms of depression:

– Withdrawing from others by declining phone calls or choosing not to respond to text messages
– Staying in bed during times when you’re not sleeping or physically in need of rest
– Deferring school assignments or work deadlines in favor of binging on Netflix series for extended periods of time
– Not leaving the house for fresh air when weather permits
– Declining hygiene practices and decreased attention to nutritional needs and physical activity
– Self-medicating through alcohol or drug use

In contrast, some individuals experience severe levels of anxiety when facing loneliness or isolation. Those with pre-existing obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety or impulse-control disorders, eating disorders, or traits of perfectionism may attempt to cope with isolation by trying to gain a sense of control over specific aspects of their lives. This could present as:

– Excessive cleaning, organizing, list-making in the home without clear need to do so
– Catastrophic thought processes with over-indulgence in news reports and social media
– Difficulty sleeping or resting due to racing thoughts
– Flare-ups of previous OCD rituals or disordered eating patterns
– Difficulty concentrating on school assignments or work due to preoccupation with above concerns

One of my favorite, go-to methods for combating these negative impulses is an emotion regulation technique called “opposite action,” a concept originating from the skill sets taught in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). This technique forces us to identify our emotion and the urges or impulses that go along with it, and to assess their degree of helpfulness or harmfulness by challenging them with facts. If found to be irrational or maladaptive, then we aim to implement the opposite of our emotion-driven impulse. We actually implement opposite action frequently through our lives without necessarily naming it as such. By identifying the technique, though, we
can consciously choose to use this skill when our level of motivation to change is low. Consider this example
(modified content courtesy of PsychPoint.com):

STEP ONE: Identify the emotion you’re looking to change. You’re really anxious about leaving home to go
on vacation.
STEP TWO: Identify the urges/impulses associated with the emotion. You actively avoid booking the
vacation by burying yourself in work and household tasks to subconsciously convince yourself that you simply
do not have the time to take a vacation.
STEP THREE: Assess whether the urge or behavior fits the facts of the situation. You have plenty of unused
vacation time and recognize that your year-end productivity will not be negatively impacted by taking the break.
You’ve taken vacations before and your family has benefited from the escape each time.
STEP FOUR: If the emotion and behavior does not fit the situation, then apply the opposite action.
Create a manageable schedule / timetable to take the steps necessary to search for and secure the logistics
required for booking the trip.
STEP FIVE: Experience the opposite emotion. Experience the excitement involved with planning activities
and excursions or buying a new outfit for the occasion. Go on the trip and enjoy the time with your family while
allowing others at work to keep things running smoothly until you return.

Used consistently, opposite action can help us to change our emotional response to stressors over time. It’s
important, though, to commit to the technique so that you can experience the full benefits of taking control of
your mood and behaviors rather than allowing them to be in control of you.

For a quick video explanation of opposite action, view the following:

If you’re experiencing the above symptoms associated with loneliness and have tried methods for self-help
without benefit, or if you’ve been previously diagnosed with a psychiatric illness or substance use disorder
that has begun to flare up in the midst of these extraordinary times, please know that psychiatric treatment
providers are still open, available, and ready to help you through this – at all levels of care.

Clinicians at the Lindner Center of HOPE are seeing patients every day through Telehealth, with options for
telephone or video sessions for both therapy and medication management. Additionally, our services are open
for emergency intake assessments and inpatient hospitalization, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient,
residential, and treatment for substance use disorders.

If you or a loved one could benefit from professional help, call the Lindner Center of HOPE at 513-536-
4673 to start the conversation and take the next steps toward healing.

Jen Milau, APRN, PMHNP-BC
Lindner Center of HOPE , Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner