By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC
You may be feeling disconnected, isolated, and lonely. Being forced to stay within the confines of your home and avoid physical human interaction can take a toll on your mental health. Having your routine majorly disrupted can also cause the development of mental health problems. If you are struggling with your mental health during this time of uncertainty and social distancing, you are not alone.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 is increasing feelings of fear, worry, stress, and anxiety among citizens. You may recognize you have an increase in these symptoms, and if so, you are not alone. As the landscape of society evolves and regulations change daily, your mental health may be affected. The WHO expects the following symptoms to increase during this time:
- Suicidal behaviors and thoughts
- Thoughts or acts of self-harm
- Alcohol and drug use
Loneliness can negatively impact your physical health and behaviors. Feelings of loneliness can lead to a weaker immune system, increased blood pressure, elevated cortisol levels (stress hormone), and disrupted sleep. In addition, loneliness can increase your risk of social withdrawal. Obviously, these consequences can be detrimental to your overall quality of life.
It should be no surprise that factors such as exercise, sleep, and healthy eating can positively or negatively impact your mental health. These three elements are considered emotional regulation skills. When done regularly, they can help improve your mood and overall mental health, as well as reduce your vulnerability to negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.
Another factor that can significantly impact your overall mental health is your relationships with others. You may be wondering, exactly how important are relationships to your quality of life and overall mental health? The answer may be surprising to you. Yes, it’s fun to go out to dinner with your best friend, gossiping over a meal you don’t have to cook or clean up after. But what really is the value in having close connections with other people?
Research has consistently shown the correlation between human relationships and mental health. Some of the proven benefits include:
- Reduced levels of depression
- Reduced levels of anxiety
- A strengthened immune system
- Quicker recovery from physical illness
- Greater empathy for self and others
- Increased levels of trust in others
- A healthier sense of self and improvement in self-esteem
For older people, staying socially connected has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; provide higher life satisfaction and a stronger quality of life; and enable elders to require less domestic support. For teens and young adults, the physical risks of social isolation and lack of connectedness include a higher risk of inflammation, obesity, and blood pressure.
You can have three different types of connectedness with people in your lives, including:
- Intimate connections: These are connections you have with the people in your home, other close family members and friends.
- Relational connections: These include people you see frequently such as work colleagues and people who share the same interests as you.
- Collective connections: These are people who hold the same membership affiliations as you such as political views or spiritual values.
While you may be feeling helpless and trapped in a situation over which you have no control, remember that you do have control over some things. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Technology has made it easier than ever to stay connected with friends and loved ones during social distancing.
FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom are free options available to help you stay connected with the people in your life. Zoom and Skype also can help you maintain relational connections with work colleagues, teachers, and others. For collective connections, many religious organizations are holding virtual prayer services, and many of your favorite celebrities are holding live concerts you can stream from the comfort of your couch.
Engaging in activities such as playing board games, exercising, and crafting with the people in your home is a great way to strengthen the connections with your loved ones. Doing something kind for them, such as making them their favorite meal or completing their household chore, can also improve your own mood and mental health. Completing a household project together can generate feelings of productivity, empowerment, and connectedness.
During this difficult time, try to remember that we are all going through this together. We are doing the very best we can under extreme circumstances. If you are lucky enough to live with family members, make it a point to connect with them in some way each day. If you are alone, take advantage of the benefits that technology offers to help you stay connected and to help maintain your mental health.
Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.