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Why your mental health may be suffering in the COVID-19 pandemic

Social distancing is the most effective tool the United States has to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, but mental health experts warn that the isolation, combined with the stress of coping with a global pandemic and the disruption summoned by the virus, could brew a toxic environment for people grappling with mental health issues.

Who may be most susceptible to stress during this crisis? Older people, those with chronic health conditions, children and teens, health care workers serving on the front lines of this virus and people grappling with mental health conditions, including substance use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even if you’re not in one of those groups, this profound moment of worry, separation, lack of social interaction, job insecurity and possible illness — or worse — can be hard on everyone. The PBS NewsHour asked experts for advice about how to manage the stress of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is social distancing important right now?

This necessary public health strategy protects vulnerable populations and prevents the nation’s health care system from being maxed out. Certain characteristics of this outbreak– its quick spread and its ability to live on surfaces for days– have made it particularly difficult to contain.

No vaccine or antidote exists specifically to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe. Since humans have not yet developed immunity to this new respiratory virus, it is very contagious and spreads easily when someone coughs, sneezes, touches their face or contaminates other surfaces. And the symptoms are easy to confuse with the seasonal flu.

The U.S. failed to produce and distribute enough diagnostic test kits before the virus spread within communities and throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Now community transmission is taking place in many states, meaning public health officials can no longer trace a person’s contacts before they became infected. Because there are still not enough test kits to fully know who has the virus, health officials are rationing them out to patients.

For all of those reasons, public health officials say social distancing is the only way to prevent a crush of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, from overwhelming the nation’s health care system.

How social distancing can hurt mental health

When you socially distance, you stay home and interact only with the people with whom you live. When you go outside, you stay at least 6 feet away at all times from anyone who doesn’t live in your household. You don’t go to your workplace. Your kids don’t go to school, the public playground or have playdates. You don’t visit your friends on the other side of town. You don’t eat at your favorite restaurant to celebrate your anniversary or birthday. You postpone your big wedding.

READ MORE: One simple chart explains how social distancing saves lives

It’s massively disruptive, and for many people, it has been intensely stressful.

No one knows how long this pandemic will last, or how long people’s lives will feel upended. Combined with the stress of job loss, mounting debt, household strains or even not being able to blow off steam at the gym, people may increasingly feel frustrated, bored, angry or confused, said Dr. Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and expert on stress and anxiety with the American Psychological Association.

“If you’re depressed, it’s hard to get the energy about how to do the things you need to do to stay connected to others,” Bufka said. “If you’re anxious, your anxiety is probably already elevated right now, and you have fewer resources to deal with that.”

According to a new poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist, nearly a fifth of Americans said they have lost their job or had their work hours cut due to novel coronavirus, and 48 percent said they, or someone in their household, canceled plans to avoid crowds. The Trump administration said it would suspend evictions and foreclosures for certain homeowners. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides some relief, but some critics have said it doesn’t go far enough to cover paid sick leave for workers.

Social distancing can also be very lonely. Many older adults have grappled with solitude and loneliness long before COVID-19, as they are losing loved ones as they age. Nearly one out of three older Americans live alone, and 43 percent of seniors say they feel lonely on a regular basis. But this virus adds a new layer, separating these individuals from the outside world as people respond to the immediate demands of the crisis and remove themselves from daily public life.

For many people who are most vulnerable to the disease, the reality is that “no one’s calling, no one’s checking, they’re running low on food and wondering what happens when their prescription runs out,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO for the Trust for America’s Health, a public health advocacy group.

“People who are already frail and have already had a lot of social isolation are disproportionately people who are at risk for serious illness and death for this coronavirus,” Auerbach said.

Government officials need to ensure basic supplies are met for everyone who needs them, Bufka said, while “reinforcing the sense that we’re all doing this for the greater good.”

What stress looks like for adults

The CDC says stress can manifest itself in certain behaviors for adults, including:

  • Feeling anxious about one’s health and that of their loved ones
  • Disruptions in eating and sleeping
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying focused
  • Aggravating pre-existing conditions
  • Partaking in more alcohol, tobacco or drug use than under relatively normal circumstances/li>

What stress looks like for kids

Social disruption can be very stressful for children, too. Losing the routine of going to school, learning with friends and teachers and playing on the playground is jarring. Kids may express that frustration in a number of ways, depending on their age, including:

  • Crying a lot or being very cranky
  • Regressing in their behavior, such as bedwetting
  • Being very worried or sad
  • Adopting eating or sleeping habits that aren’t healthy
  • Acting out (particularly among teenagers)
  • Not performing well in classwork or avoiding school demands altogether
  • Trouble staying focused
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Headaches or body aches
  • Using alcohol, tobacco or drugs

So, what can you do?

People in isolation should “stay connected and maintain your social networks,” along with your daily routine as much as possible, the World Health Organization said earlier this month. Maybe you can’t go to the office, but you can still take a shower, get dressed and stick to a general schedule.

You should also exercise, eat healthy food and sleep regularly, the WHO has urged, telling the public to “pay attention to your own needs and feelings” during these stressful times.

If you’re consuming endless amounts of news about COVID-19, that can ramp up your anxiety. Set times during the day to check in on developments, and pay attention to news and information from trusted sources to help you prepare and stay safe.

And even if you can’t hug your best friend or visit your loved ones, technology makes it possible to make connections, and still appreciate the ups and downs of being human in these times.

  • Make a point of picking up the phone and checking on people. Commit to calling four people each day.
  • From schoolchildren to some employees teleworking, video conferencing rules the day. Try applying this tool to staying in touch with friends. If you have a favorite television show, you could try virtually watching with friends.
  • Several museums have launched free virtual tours. You and a friend could schedule a time to “explore” a museum together while cooped up in your respective homes.

Despite social distancing, “we have opportunities to deepen our relationships,” Bufka said.