We have a basic need to be connected and have relationships with others, and during stressful times our need to be social increases.  However, our typical sources of human contact, such as playing sports or meeting friends for dinner, have been severely restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “[Social isolation] conflicts with our natural desire to connect with our friends and family during stressful times,” says Roxanne Cohen-Silver, professor of psychological science at UC Irvine who studies the long-term physical reactions to stress and anxiety. With no sign that we’ll be able to have social gatherings any time soon, we need to find ways to cope with this new normal. Cohen-Silver says that it’s Important to acknowledge the stress that this situation is causing. “Anxiety is appropriate under the circumstances,” she says. “The uncertainty is difficult for us to cope with, and that’s ok.”

LifeOmic had access to a media briefing in which experts in stress and social relationships discussed how to maintain good mental health during social isolation in this pandemic. Here are a few of their tips to help you take care of your mind during these uncertain times:

1.   Take a break from the news

It’s good to be informed, but obsessing over the latest on the pandemic can ramp up your anxiety. “Overexposure to the media can amplify stress, with downstream mental and physical health effects,” says Cohen-Silver. If you would still like to stay up-to-date, look for trusted sources of information, such as the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization, and don’t rely on social media to get your news. Social networks don’t vet the content that users share, and misinformation can spread widely and quickly. “Getting information from trusted sources allows us to manage our anxieties and worries a little bit more,” says Robin Gurwitch, Clinical Psychologist and Professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Save social media for checking up on friends and family, and don’t use it as your only source of information.


2.    Acknowledge that uncertainty and isolation are stressful

A pandemic is a new stressor for all of us, and it is normal to feel anxious and worried. “Many people are feeling significant distress because of [social distancing] recommendations,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “Feelings of distress are normal. This is our body signaling a need to reconnect,” she says. Acknowledge your feelings of worry and talk about what you’re feeling with others.

3.    Practice social distancing but stay connected

Even though we are being asked to stay home and keep our distance to stay healthy, we can still remain socially connected. If you live with others, spend quality time to nurture those relationships. Holt-Lunstad recommends expressing gratitude to your loved ones to strengthen your social bonds and combat feelings of loneliness.

Reaching out to friends and loved ones through the phone, video chats, or social media can help us make sense of this stressful event. 

4.    Shift your mindset

Holt-Lunstad explains that the way we interpret a situation can influence how our body responds to different stressors.  She recommends looking at self-isolation through a different lens: “Instead of interpreting the situation as being cut off from others, we can focus on doing this to protect those that we love,” she says.

5.    Help out if you can 

“Anxiety is contagious but so is compassion,” says Cohen-Silver.  Think about ways you can connect with your neighbor who lives alone. For example, offer to buy groceries or leave some baked goods at their door. “If we work together we can save lives,” she says

6.     If you need help,  reach out

People who have a history of poor mental health are at a greater risk of distress during this pandemic, explains Cohen-Silver. If you were seeing a therapist before social isolation began, continue to see them virtually. If you need to, reach out to the many free, confidential helplines that are available. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has a helpline for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Every state in the U.S has a suicide hotline you can reach out to, and there are also suicide prevention chats if you prefer to talk online. If your anxiety is specifically related to coronavirus, there are crisis counselors available here.