The psychological effects of quarantine

Quarantine has been a vital public health strategy during the pandemic. While it may help reduce disease transmission, it also has psychological effects. The more we, and healthcare providers, know about the stressors of quarantine, their psychological effects, and how to promote psychological wellbeing during these trying times, the better off we’ll be. 

Research from the UK report clinically high levels of distress among people due to the impact of COVID-19. They found that those who demonstrate psychological flexibility -- defined as “the ability to recognize and adapt to situational demands in pursuit of personally meaningful longer-term outcomes” -- have greater wellbeing and are at reduced risk for anxiety and depression. 

Conversely, people who demonstrate psychological inflexibility and the related tendency to avoid difficult situations and feelings, have poorer coping outcomes. According to research from China, meanwhile, these same negative coping styles may lead to mental illness. This data underscores the value of early psychological interventions. 

The psychology of uncertainty

Dealing with quarantines and lockdowns is bad enough on its own, but in an unprecedented period of uncertainty like the one we’re now in, the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds can be worse than the actual situation itself. Psychologists say this phenomenon occurs because when our brains don’t know what’s coming next, they spin with everything that could possibly happen. 

“Your brain will do almost anything for the sake of certainty,” Bryan Robinson, PhD writes in Forbes. As such, “You’re hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to handle them -- all in the name of survival,” Robinson continues. In fact, studies show people are calmer when they’re anticipating pain than they are when what’s coming is unknown. 

The key to managing this anxiety? Maintaining your perspective. “In addition to washing our hands, we need to cleanse our minds to offset catastrophic thinking,” concludes Robinson. 

Tips for managing COVID-related uncertainty and anxiety

There are some specific things you can do to that effect, according to MindSpot’s list of 10 psychological tips for coping with  the coronavirus. These are getting informed with the right information, getting organized, balancing your thoughts, shutting down outside noise, understanding history, reminding yourself of who you are, maintaining healthy routines, staying engaged and connected with the people around you, spending time doing enjoyable activities and hobbies, and looking forward. 

While we are all hoping and waiting for things to return to normal, the mantra “this too shall pass” can be helpful. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) also shed light on how we can better deal with COVID-19. Findings include the damaging effects of media and social media, and the vital role getting information from worthy sources can play. (Learn how to find them here.) Additionally, we know the sooner people start managing their stress, the less likely they are to suffer long-term mental and physical health outcomes. 

The APA further reports on the negative impact of quarantines and isolation, determining priorities to be minimizing quarantine lengths and making sure isolating people have access to what they need. 

On that note, at a time when people have even less access to resources, online therapy is playing an increasingly vital role. In Turkey, for example, people are benefiting from online psychotherapy sessions. “The pandemic changed the way we work. The online method enabled us to reach out to people all across the country,” says Emre Konuk, director of the Turkish EMDR Association Trauma Healing Group. 

One lesser-discussed coping mechanism for many people during lockdowns, according to one study in Britain, is pets!Specifically, 90 percent of survey respondents revealed that their pets helped them cope during lockdowns, while 96 percent said their pets helped them stay active and fit. “Findings from this study also demonstrated potential links between people’s mental health and the emotional bonds they form with their pets,” says lead author Elena Ratschen. While cats and dogs were the most common pets cited in the study, smaller mammals and even fish were also included. 

Meanwhile, a study published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences found an even less likely contributor to coping with coronavirus: horror movies. “People who engaged more frequently with frightening fictional phenomena, such as horror fans and the morbidly curious, displayed more robust psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers contend. 

According to lead author Coltan Scrivner, this may be because people who watch horror movies are used to feeling afraid in safe settings. Watching movies helps them practice their “emotion regulation skills”, which have equipped them to deal better with the chaos of COVID. 

Fans of the “prepper” genre, which includes zombie, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic films, were also found to be more prepared for the pandemic because they were prepared for the social upheaval that often accompanies real-world disasters.

On resources for coping with COVID

In addition to weighing in with stress reduction strategies, experts at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences also provided a number of resources, such as this series of resilience and emotional wellbeing videos. 

The Annabelle Psychology clinic also compiled an extensive list of COVID-19 resources on everything from managing psychological stressors to managing relationships.

Woman at home during COVID

Lastly, researchers suggest we could all benefit during the potential extended lockdowns ahead by thinking like Norwegians, who have shown the capacity to endure bleak winters much better than people from countries with similar climates. 

According to scientists, Norwegians do this by reframing stressful situations, like long winters and quarantines, into “challenges” which present the opportunity to learn, adapt, and ultimately cope. Health psychologist Kari Leibowitz explains, “Once you put it in people’s heads that mindsets exist, and that you have control over your mindset -- I think that’s tremendously powerful.” 

It may take some work to learn to approach challenges like our neighbors to the north, but it’s worth it. While maintaining an optimistic outlook won’t control coronavirus or its effects, it can help us tap into our inner resilience in order to be healthier and happier. Plus, when COVID-19 is behind us (remember: this too shall pass), this mindset will continue to serve you well in many aspects of life.