The COVID-19 outbreak has brought upon humanity an unprecedented and challenging situation. The pandemic has made this a shared experience that we all are undergoing in the isolation of our homes. Some of us may have people we care about around us, and then there are many who are completely on their own. While isolation is a deeply painful experience to go through, it is also a subconscious response to an imminent danger or threat. In its most severe form, social isolation has also been used as a harsher mode of punishment in prison settings, which speaks volumes about its negative psychological impact.
Can isolation during this lockdown pose a threat to our mental health?
It is inevitable that a prolonged period of social isolation will become increasingly difficult to deal with as we rely on each other to survive and thrive. Under the threat of mortal danger, our capacity to depend on others becomes seriously compromised. Deep-seated fantasies of persecution and danger begin to bubble up creating mistrust and cynicism in us towards other people. When these feelings are unchecked, they can take over and create mayhem, damaging the social fabric of our existence. Due to the undefined nature of COVID, our fears may become heightened even more, and since making our internal reality bigger and scarier.
What can be the impacts of Social Isolation on Mental Health
Trapped in these feelings, social isolation can end up becoming a breeding ground for a host of emotional difficulties and psychological disorders. So even though we may remain protected from the physical dangers of Covid-19, we would continue to struggle with the emotional ramifications caused by it.
Our response under such a looming threat could either be an acceptance of reality or a denial of it. It can be seen in the different ways in which people are responding to it. While some have found a way to deal with it by not actively thinking about it and engaging themselves in hobbies and other activities, there are many others whose social and economic realities offer them no respite and they continue to be directly and continuously impacted by it. While some people have become extra cautious with their hygiene, there are others who flout all regulations and continue to expose themselves and others. This denial is an example of a maladaptive defense mechanism that ends up exposing ourselves to threats and not really protecting us from them.
Another defense mechanism that we end up relying on is projection. It is when we ascribe blame or threat to someone in the external world when we are not able to deal with the anxiety internally. Some of the hostility towards doctors who are trying to help the suffering patients is an example of such a projection. These maladaptive defenses are a result of this anxiety that is festering within us during these difficult times.
Many of us who are not able to externalize this anxiety also may end up experiencing these attacks internally in the form of depression.
The loss of control and this curtailment of basic freedom is what characterizes social isolation in its worst form.
What complicates matters further are not just fear for oneself but a constant sense of dread about losing those you love and care about. Protecting oneself becomes all the more difficult when you perceive danger to your loved ones as well.
Can our brain use isolation to protect itself from pain?
Out of the many defense mechanisms that our mind employs in dealing with threats to our emotional health, isolation is one of the common ones identified in the psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud. Isolation as a defense mechanism creates a gap between threatening and non-threatening thoughts and feelings. By breaking off associations with unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the mind tries to reduce the impact of the negativity that can endanger our sense of self. While some defense mechanisms may take on more maladaptive forms later on in our lives by restricting us, some of them can be transformed into healthy coping mechanisms as well. We are currently facing a deadly threat and to deal with the effects of this threat, we need to rely on our mind’s capacity to use isolation as a means of coping with reality.
How to deal with the emotional impact of Social Isolation?
As we remain in the grip of this bewildering situation, it is difficult to say what is the right way to cope because everyone is trying their best to deal with it in their own capacities. However, it is helpful if each person determines for themselves the pace with which they want to access information and regulate their contact with other people.
It may be helpful to have social interactions but they can also become overwhelming sometimes and hence one has to continuously negotiate these distances. We need to allow ourselves to get in touch with our shifting feelings and those of others and try to meet each other’s needs.
Some people may find it very rewarding to engage in productive activities, while others may feel oppressed by it. Again, finding your own pace, which is determined by everyone’s unique living conditions, becomes essential
While we adapt to this new situation and develop new habits, we need to be mindful of how we are impacted by the interruption of the way we have lived a life before. It might make us uncertain about the future and impact how we are approaching our work, our relationships, and other aspects of our lives. This uncertainty needs to be acknowledged and worked through.
It is possible to lose a sense of time during isolation. It becomes difficult to create or sustain routines as our contact with the outside world shrinks. It may be helpful to find some way to structure the day and create some rhythm that can be followed.
For most people, the collapse of the distance between their work life and personal life has become emotionally exhausting. Time and space are essential ways to structure our existence. Perhaps making simple changes like assigning a workstation to yourself in one nook of your home, may help in organizing mentally these different spaces.
Being mindful of any changes in your day-to-day functioning is essential in taking care of your mental health. If you notice any significant changes like loss of motivation, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, lack of pleasure in the things you previously enjoyed, etc. then it may be helpful to take professional help in assessing what may be going on internally.
It is also helpful to create circles of care for yourself and those around you, which can consist of people who make you feel safe and make the isolation feel bearable.
How has forced isolation due to illnesses in the past created wonders?
1. 1665 – Plague: Cambridge university shuts down.
This was the period when Sir Isaac Newton poured himself into developing new theories around physics such as calculus and optics. The most important of them regarding the moon orbiting the Earth was incepted during this time.
2. 1562-1563 – Bubonic Plague/Black death
William Shakespeare was forced into social isolation as theatres were ordered shut due to the life-threatening illness. However, it was during this time that Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous and brilliant works – “Macbeth”, King Lear” and “Antony and Cleopatra”
3. Edvard Munch – the Norwegian artist.
Munch is renowned all over the world due to his brilliant painting – “the Scream”. It is well known that he spent most of his life in isolation. There were many reasons for it – the demise of his mother due to tuberculosis when he was five years old, losing his sister soon after and his father suffering from psychotic depression. Besides this, he himself suffered from frail health which forced him to miss school and spend all his winter indoors, alone in isolation. There are many analysts who believe that this expressionist artist’s creative pieces were extraordinary as he chose to express his pain and turmoil due to isolation through art.
So, amongst the many challenges, the current pandemic is posing for all of us, one of the longer-lasting ones is social isolation. Even as the world gradually opens up, a sense of mistrust and fear from our social surroundings will take a long time to fade away. This shall force most of us to live in social isolation making it our new normal. A better understanding of its impact on our mental health shall equip us to take better care of ourselves