In addition to the physical effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, the quarantine and social distancing that come along with it have taken a huge toll on the mental health of people of all ages. The mental impact of social isolation is as prominent as ever. Along with it, we have seen increased health anxiety and uncertainty about the future.
Initially, we thought that the summer would be it. That once that fall hit, COVID-19 would be a thing of the past. But clearly, that is not the case. In order to understand the severity and probability of a second wave, I spoke to Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Omar Kawwaff, MD.
Dr. Kawwaff said that one of the most intriguing aspects of the Coronavirus is that it is very easily transmissible in all types of conditions.
“The special thing about COVID-19 is that it is completely new, and we are all susceptible to get it,” Dr. Kawwaff said. “It has very easy transmission. The wet, hot, dry, weather cannot suspend it.”
By contrast, environmental conditions such as temperature, rainfall, and altitude have drastic effects on common diseases, including Malaria, Lyme disease, dengue, and many more. The fact that research has not found decreased transmission of COVID-19 in certain weather conditions makes it more likely to surge.
With all that being said, Dr. Kawwaff thinks that another surge of COVID-19 is highly likely. In fact, the day I spoke to him, Tuesday, June 30th 2020, he had 10 new coronavirus patients in just that day.
“We are not going to be able to control the surge unless we have a vaccine, or (if) we are going to change the behavior of people,” Dr. Kawwaff said. “Low socio-economic groups cannot have adequate social distancing and have to go to work. And people still aren’t wearing masks.”
So it seems as though we will be unable to fully prevent a surge of the virus, but there are still some things we can do to make it as low-impact as possible. According to Dr. Kawwaff, two of the most important things for us to maintain are social distancing and wearing masks.
“Distancing and masks,” Dr. Kawwaff asserted. “Shaking hands is over, socializing in bars and restaurants is one of the most dangerous things we can do. Masks are the number one. People have a right (not to wear them), but other people have a right, and masks are about protecting others, not just you.”
According to a 2020 article from the University of California San Francisco, lab research and real world epidemiologic data serve as evidence that cloth masks are very effective for preventing the spread of disease. Most of this data consists of dramatic decrease in COVID-19 transmission and death rates across 198 countries.
In order to do our best to control the spread of the coronavirus, social distancing is still a must. But what does that mean for our mental health?
To understand more about the way social distancing continues to impact our mental health, I spoke to Psychologist and Psychology Professor Dr. Debjani Sinha, PhD. Dr. Sinha introduced me to the topic of Touch Hunger, which relates to the need that all humans have to be in close proximity to others.
“COVID has taken away our ability to connect with people,” Dr. Sinha said. (It deprives us of) “the need to be physically connected and touch a human being.”
More specifically, touch hunger or touch starvation occurs as a result of deprivation of physical connection when physical contact is limited. This feeling can consume your mind and body and bring with it dissatisfaction and unease. In addition, the touch starvation that results from social distancing can lead to psychological distress (depression, stress, and anxiety) as well as physical distress, including increased blood pressure and decreased effectiveness of the immune system.
Aside from social isolation, there are so many other ways that quarantine and the coronavirus can impact our mental health. From virus anxiety, to loneliness, to boredom, to stress, it seems as though no one is safe from COVID-19’s mental impact.
You may be wondering why mental health matters at a time like this. Did you know that poor mental health is strongly associated with a weakened immune system? There is a field called Affective Immunology which explores the very apparent link between psychological/emotional distress and immune response. Research has shown that experiencing both acute and chronic stress can not only lead to mental health disorders but also inflammation throughout the body due to an immune response. With everything we are doing to try and keep ourselves healthy, it is crucial to add mental health into the mix.
So what can we do about it? I think that we’ve already done a good job of trying to connect virtually, through Zoom, WebEX and the like, which has helped buffer some of the consequences of social distancing. But I also think that it would be beneficial to learn how to enjoy time alone.
When it comes to spending time alone, it’s easy to hit a wall. Depriving ourselves of that social need for so long can be damaging. During the potential surge of COVID-19, protecting our mental health is a must and I have found that creativity is a front runner in helping us do so. In addition to being solo activities, creative things help our minds in so many ways and can actually make us happier!
Creativity can do wonders for our mental health. According to an article from ICS Digital Therapies, being creative puts your mind in a state of tranquility, similar to meditation. But that’s not all. Have you noticed that many creative activities involve repetitive body movements? Think about knitting, cooking, dancing, painting, just to name a few! It turns out that these repetitive movements actually connect to reward centers in our brains and trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical. So while you’re in quarantine or spending some extra time alone, consider taking up something creative in between Netflix binges–you’ll feel so much better before you know it.
Social distancing is in no way easy or desirable. During this time, however, it couldn’t be more necessary. It is so important to take care of your mental health all the time, but especially now, and creativity is a fun, easy way to help do so. In the words of Dr. Sinha, “taking care of the mind is so critical, because if that doesn’t work, you can’t really do anything else.”
So in addition to wearing a mask and keeping your distance, it is imperative to find ways to stimulate your mind through creativity to keep yourself as healthy as can be during this time.
Edited by Charlotte Milone