Sumaiya Malik is working from home and social distancing herself during the coronavirus pandemic. The writer takes a break every day around lunchtime and connects with a friend either through FaceTime or Whatsapp.
Even though she’s not at home alone — her son is home from the University of Texas and her daughter is preparing for law school — she says she and her friends are used to being very social.
These lunchtime chats don’t have to be very long, and she tells her friends that it’s OK to be just the way they are. Sometimes younger kids are acting up in the background. Sometimes hair isn’t combed. They check in with each other.
Other times she’s connecting with family. "It makes life fun," she says. She’ll note things like, "Oh, you have cilantro growing in your yard," or, "Oh, look what your kids are doing," she says. "It’s brought us so much closer."
It’s also preserving her mental health. After all, she says, how many books can you read, how many movies can you watch, how many games can you play?
"It’s affecting people," she says. "Man is a social animal; what do you do? This makes life easier."
We’re all spending a lot of time at home and practicing social distancing, but that distancing could easily turn into isolation.
We also might be worrying about getting the virus itself or our family members getting it, as well as the economic impact personally and beyond businesses closing.
"It's OK to get anxious about something like this and even become fearful," says Dr. Octavio Martinez, executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. "But we shouldn't allow it to overwhelm us, and I think that's where it leaves folks to be feeling helpless or out of control."
Psychologist Allison Chase, the regional clinical director for Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Center, says people’s past history of depression or anxiety is going to play a role in their response to being separated from others.
The adults she serves are showing anxiety about the uncertainty of what will happen, especially around their livelihood. Teens are showing more anxiety about their lives being interrupted, she says.
For some folks, this pandemic could be particularly difficult mentally. Michael Telch, an expert on panic and phobias at the University of Texas and founder of UT's Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders, says people who have pre-existing contamination concerns, or obsessive-compulsive disorders that include an exaggerated fear of germs and contamination, are much more likely to react in dramatic ways.
They might be taking unnecessary protective action, he says.
"If you’re wearing a condom when you don’t know the history of a sex partner, that’s not unnecessary. If you’re wearing strong winter clothes in Chicago, that’s not unnecessary. But if you spend 19 hours a day in the shower, that’s unnecessary protective action," he says. "And when you’re told to take protective action, it’s a trigger."
Martinez says one of the things that can be helpful is keeping a daily routine, even if you can no longer go to a workplace or school or dine in at restaurants.
"Maintaining our routine activities also has a calming effect for us, subconsciously as well as an unconscious level," Martinez says.
Because we are social beings, we need to stay connected.
"Interpersonal connection is so essential for us as humans," Chase says. "We all crave it and need it, especially at a time where anxiety and uncertainty is running higher. It can be comforting to have that kind of connection."
That can mean video conferencing, texting, calling, playing video games together virtually, watching the same movie while texting or calling each other, or reading the same book and discussing it.
"Don't leave your connections just because they may change in the type of connection," Martinez says. "We can still maintain, I think, to the extent possible, good quality connections though they're going to feel a little different at first."
It could also mean chatting with neighbors from a safe distance (at least 6 feet is recommended). For people like seniors who might have already been isolated, picking up the phone and calling could help them and you.
It helps to share our feelings about the isolation. "It doesn't hurt to just get on the phone and just talk to your colleagues and just to sort of vent with each other and talk about what this is like," Martinez says.
Right now, we also all need to do some self-care.
That could mean meditation or deep breathing, perhaps by using an app like Headspace or Calm, or doing the breathing your Apple Watch told you to do. It could mean daily prayer.
Start a gratitude journal, even something as simple as writing three good things each day.
Think about doing yoga or another form of exercise online, especially now that gyms have closed.
Identify what brings you joy and do those things. It could be reading a book alone or binge-watching a show with a family member.
Get outside by taking a walk around your block or taking a hike on a local hiking trail. Find a way to be in nature. That vitamin D can be so helpful.
Don’t forget to eat healthy foods, even if it can be a challenge to find everything in the store.
Also, stay hydrated.
Stay away from constantly checking the news or constantly checking social media if that social media is going to increase your anxiety level.
Social media can be comforting for some as we see others posting funny videos, photos of how they are handling social distancing or positive expressions.
"Just make sure that you're connecting with the positive influence for yourself," says Debbie Roberson, owner of Thriveworks’ North Austin, Bastrop, Pflugerville, Cedar Park and South Austin locations.
Be careful about whom you’re connecting with. You might need to separate yourself from someone who is overly emotional about this situation to not have it feed into your own anxiety.
While many people are reacting to the fact that our normal busyness came to a screeching halt, Roberson says, this could be a time to do things you usually don’t make time to do, such as gardening, cleaning out closets or starting a new hobby.
This is also a chance to play board games, do puzzles, read a book, enjoy adult coloring books and craft.
"Be playful," Roberson says. "We don’t take the time to play."
Think about something you’ve always wanted to do and make a plan to do it once social isolation ends. It could be planning a trip or trying something new. "Something to give you hope," Roberson says.
Realize that there may be unexpected emotional lows during this time. "If you need, take a moment to grieve the loss of your former independence and freedom," Roberson says. "Do so, and then move on from that."
Be mindful of your levels of anxiety or depression and those of your family members. Pay attention to the level of impairment, Chase says. How are basic daily functions going, like eating, sleeping, showering and getting dressed?
"A lot of people are in the home, so pajamas are going to be what we do, but we all have a limit," Chase says. Not brushing your teeth for days or not showering could be a warning sign.
As could not reaching out to talk or text with anyone, not finding pleasure in playing with a dog or taking a walk like you used to or having emotional outbursts of anger or sadness repeatedly.
And, of course, self-harm or ideas around suicide are warning signs. That’s when you need to seek help.
Many counseling offices, like Thriveworks, are doing more and more sessions by video conference calls or by the telephone right now. You don’t have to worry about infection risks to get help.