How to cope with the stress of social isolation

Older female sitting on yoga mat, with holing a light weight in one hand, watching laptop.

Social isolation, or being physically separated from others, can lead to loneliness and increased stress, especially during a pandemic.

Loneliness has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. It can also weaken our immune systems, which helps protect us from getting sick. Luckily, understanding stress and loneliness and how to manage them can help.

How stress affects us

While some stress is normal, too much of it can interfere with daily activities, relationships, and work. Symptoms of stress and anxiety include:

  • Feeling irritable, restless, and on edge
  • Feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Combating stress

To combat stress, make sure to eat a diet full of heart-healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains. Get enough sleep (for adults, that is usually between 7 and 8 hours) and seek out physical activity.

Connecting with nature can lower levels of stress and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. A walk or bike ride may make you feel better and stay physically fit. Just 30 minutes of physical activity a day can make a big difference. Remember to wear a mask even when you are outside. Also, keep 6 feet of space between yourself and people who do not live in your home.

Combating loneliness

Avoiding in-person social gatherings will help keep you and others safe.  But you can stay in touch with people in other ways:

  • Connect with loved ones through online games, video calls, or messaging apps.
  • Look online for virtual exercise classes, religious services, and cultural events.
  • Try at-home, guided yoga, mindfulness, or meditation through a mobile app.
  • Consider adopting a pet. Pets can provide comfort and lower blood pressure, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Reach out to a health care professional

Stress and social isolation can worsen existing mental illness. Consult your health care provider if your feelings are getting in the way of your daily life.

“For those with mental illnesses, be sure to continue your treatment regimens,” says Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Consider developing a plan for telehealth sessions with your provider if you (or your provider) are quarantined or must avoid exposures to the public for any reason. And reach out to friends and family for support, virtually if necessary.”

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