As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, so do the concerns. High on many people’s lists is the possibility of having to spend time under quarantine or home isolation. (Yes, there’s a difference between the two, and we’ll get there in a minute.) While some people are flocking to grocery stores and pharmacies to buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks, others may be thinking ahead to the possible implications of an isolation scenario on their mental health—especially those who already live with mental illness.
“Quarantine is especially difficult for people who have underlying psychological problems. It feels like being a prisoner who is punished by being forced to live in solitary confinement,” Carole Lieberman, M.D., a board certified psychiatrist, with a masters in public health tells Lifehacker. “And, besides having underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and so on, everyone is being whipped up into mass hysteria and some are having panic attacks based on fear of getting coronavirus—even before being quarantined.”
Lifehacker spoke with Lieberman and several mental health professionals to find out how those of us living with mental illness can make it through a quarantine or home isolation without feeling worse off, mentally.
Home isolation versus quarantine
Because the terms “home isolation” and “quarantine” are thrown around a lot these days—sometimes interchangeably—let’s talk about what each term means. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, both home isolation and quarantine are public health practices used to protect the public by preventing exposure to infected (or potentially infected) people, thereby limiting the spread of a disease or virus, like COVID-19. Specifically, HHS defines each as:
Isolation is used to separate ill persons who have a communicable disease from those who are healthy. Isolation restricts the movement of ill persons to help stop the spread of certain diseases. For example, hospitals use isolation for patients with infectious tuberculosis.
Quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease but do not show symptoms. Quarantine can also help limit the spread of communicable disease.
If you find yourself in isolation or under quarantine, it means a lot of time by yourself, or with members of your household. Either way, that could be bad news for your mental health. Here are five tips from mental health professionals for maintaining mental wellness during home isolation or quarantine. Though many of these could be useful for anyone who finds themself in an isolation situation, these pointers are geared towards people who already have a diagnosed mental illness.
Maintain a sense of community
As someone with depression and anxiety who also works from home, I know that after a few days of not interacting with other humans beyond neighbors in my lobby and the grocery store checkout people, it can make both conditions worse. It’s not that I want to go out and socialize (quite the opposite, actually), but I’ve found that spending long periods of time alone can cause my anxiety and depression to spiral. This is something I can absolutely see happening during a period of home isolation or quarantine as well.
That’s why Haley Neidich, a licensed psychotherapist, stresses that people with existing mental illness should maintain a sense of community while quarantined by talking throughout the day with family and friends via text, video and phone. Along the same lines, Brittany A Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor, recommends finding friends and/or family that you can talk to on a regular basis and creating a routine or schedule for when you are going to talk to people. This will help you stay in touch with other people, even if you feel as though you have nothing new to say.
Take care of yourself
This may seem obvious, but if you’re stuck in one place for an extended period of time, it’s not an excuse to stop your regular health routines. According to Christine Knorr, a licensed clinical social worker, during a difficult time, it’s important to focus on the basics, like making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating regularly (and well), taking any medications as prescribed, and exercising. While you may not be able to hit the gym or go for long walks outside, you can at least walk around your home or do a few YouTube exercise videos to keep your body moving.
“Making sure your basic needs are being met and focusing on keeping a routine can be tremendously helpful in ensuring that you are in the best possible place to manage emotional distress,” she tells Lifehacker.
A lot of us living with depression and/or anxiety have developed some methods of self-soothing. When my anxiety is especially bad, I like to scroll through Airbnb and look at listings in places I’d like to visit. Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert, recommends doing something that you know you find soothing, like meditation or stretching.
“In my community and my private practice, I’ve already noticed a huge increase in stress and fear—particularly for those who have mental health diagnoses in the realm of anxiety, PTSD, and depression,” she tells Lifehacker. If you fall into this category and find yourself in home isolation or quarantine, try to do things that help you stay calm and relaxed, whether that’s listening to certain music, rereading a favorite book, or rewatching The Golden Girls for the millionth time. And while you’re at it, Lieberman recommends avoiding any fear-mongering news stories or programs, along with people who might get you even more anxious and worked up about COVID-19.
Keep your mind busy
One of the most challenging parts of being on your own for long stretches of time is not being held to any sort of schedule. One way to get around this is to stick to a routine. “If you are at your own home, create a routine so that you can manage your time efficiently,” Johnson says. “Being in the house can cause you to binge shows or scroll social media mindlessly and can cause you to become off balance.”
If you find yourself with a lot of free time and aren’t sure how to spend it, Johnson suggests finding a topic you’re interested in and starting a small, information research project where you look into a certain area and learn more about it. Always wanted to learn more about different species of iguanas, or the history of breakfast cereal? Now’s the time. But try to stick to a schedule, to add structure to your day. “Have time limits set and set an alarm or reminder to stop looking and take a break,” Johnson says.
Another possibility, courtesy of Lieberman, is to think ahead to all the fun things you’ll do once you’re out of isolation or quarantine. You can even start making tentative plans with friends and family you want to see when the period is over.
Try online therapy services
Though this isn’t an option for everyone, many mental health practitioners now offer their services online. If you’re already seeing a therapist, check in with them about whether this—or having your appointment over the phone—is an option.
“Online therapy services have been shown to be just as effective as in-person services for most mental health conditions,” Dr. Anna Yam, a clinical psychologist tells Lifehacker. “Some providers who use state-of-the-art software for telehealth also have the ability to screen share, so therapy online can be an interactive experience.”