A coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has changed the way people live and socialize. About three weeks ago, life as everyone knew it changed unexpectedly.

The respiratory virus that primarily spreads by contact with an infected person through coughs and sneezes eventually caused various local cities and towns to put in place Stay-at-Home orders, limit the number of people who could gather together, and advise people to stay six feet away from others in public.

People, especially single people who were used to getting together regularly to hang out with friends for dinner, movies, or nights on the town, are now trying to cope with social isolation. This public health emergency may be affecting some people’s moods and/or mentality.

So, if you’re struggling with loneliness and lack of hugs or physical contact, founder and clinical director of All-1-FAMILY Inc., Abeke “Kay” Baker, LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) and Dr. Danielle Ibelema, MD of Midtown Psychiatry shared in an interview with Georgia Voice some helpful tips to cope with social isolation.

“There are numerous ways in which a person will respond to social isolation,” Baker said. “Many of my clients that suffer from anxiety-based disorders have increased symptoms such as racing thoughts and worrying about things they have no control over. Many negative thought loops can increase to severity, causing panic attacks.”

According to Baker, some of her clients suffer from mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder. “Due to quarantine and social distancing, a person with a mood disorder is given an excuse to not get out of bed, sleeping most of the day, over or under eating,” she noted.

Because of the pandemic, Baker said more people may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and lethargy. “To the average person, symptoms can be very sudden, shocking, and they may not know when or what to do for help,” Baker said.

Ibelema agrees. ”It’s normal to experience a variety of emotions in response to this crisis. It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, or frustrated. It’s okay to even feel grief over the loss of structure, certainty and one’s sense of normalcy.”

She also advised that, “It’s important to recognize how you feel in the moment, and to find some acceptance of your feelings. The changes related to COVID have disrupted our lives in a very abrupt way. It’s okay to have uncomfortable feelings about it.”

According to Baker, isolation can cause increased symptoms that cause stress in a person and more health/medical problems. But one can combat social isolation and not succumb to depression, sleeping the days away or overeating. In order to do so, she suggests getting out of bed as usual and completing a typical daily routine.

“Shower, brush your teeth, personal hygiene, and put on clothes (even if they are just sweatpants and T-shirts),” Baker suggests. “If you’re socially isolating alone, still move from room to room throughout the day and go on solo walks or bike rides. If you’re socially isolated with family, create a flexible schedule or routine and don’t make a person feel bad when they need to take a little time to themselves.”

Now more than ever, maintaining balance is the key to getting through this stressful time. Ibelema added, “I encourage my patients to maintain an awareness of the good and the bad. We are inundated with bad news and ‘worst case scenarios’ even in absence of a crisis. We have to make an effort to see the positive in an attempt to see the full balance of a situation.”

Like Baker, Ibelema also recommends that one maintain a consistent routine during this time.

“Try to maintain a set wake up time and bedtime. Try to get at least 6–9 hours of sleep each night. Keep consistent mealtimes,” she added. “Also, attempt to work out at least 30 minutes a day. Exercise, sleep, and good nutrition is important when dealing with stress.”

“It’s important to stay informed, but I encourage people to not overload themselves with news broadcasts or social media,” Ibelema advised. “Staying glued to them for long periods of time can be unhealthy, and it often feeds anxiety and fear. Try to set a daily limit for yourself that you think is reasonable and stick to it.”

As the stay-at-home orders and now a recent shelter-in-place order for the entire State of Georgia announced by Gov. Brian Kemp has been issued until April 13, Baker said there are still ways to connect with people. While popular pastimes and in-person activities can no longer take place, Baker said today there are still many options for people to stay in touch and even interact with each other.

“FaceTime, Skype, or video chat with friends and family,” Baker suggests. “During the chat you can cook together; Netflix movie dates (together from two different homes); play video games; even board games. There are countless tutorials on YouTube such as: painting, drawing, dancing, singing, etc. You can have cooking competitions in your home and other creative games. Spend time writing that book you’ve been talking about or get physically fit with in-home workouts.”

According to Ibelema, this social isolation can affect some people’s mental health. “Interacting with others is something that tends to add meaning to our lives, but we also need it to survive. Social distancing relates to physical distancing, but not emotional distancing,” Ibelema noted. “We all need interactions with other people to be healthy. It’s important to maintain contact with friends and family even when you cannot be in the same space. Use phone calls, text messages and FaceTime to keep in touch with your loved ones on a regular basis. If you live alone, I would aim to talk to at least one other person each day.”

However, if anyone starts suffering from three to four of the following: depression, lethargy, irritability, change in appetite or decreased motivation, both Ibelema and Baker suggest reaching out to a mental health professional. Many mental health professionals are now offering telehealth/online sessions.

All-1-Family, Inc. and Midtown Psychiatry are offering sessions that can be booked online through their websites. Baker can be contacted through the website www.all1familyinc.org and Ibelema can be reached through the Midtown Psychiatry website at www.midtownpsychiatry.com.

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