By Mireidy Fernandez, PsyD, Adjunct Faculty, Florida National University
COVID-19 has brought upon a great many challenges. One of those is not just the feeling of constant isolation for some but also the physical detachment we have been forced to overcome. For some people, feelings of anxiety, depression, sadness, worthlessness, and loneliness may lead to reduced productivity, and an overall lack of motivation even for the most basic of functions – such as getting out of bed. While it is “normal” to feel sadness from time to time as people grapple with the new realities of living in a COVID-19 world, overwhelming feelings of constant isolation – while social distancing becomes a way of life – should be addressed at the core level. This means that for students and faculty who are juggling the mixed bag of emotions between being a working professional, tending to family members and taking care of their own mental and physical health, this is a time for self-care and reflection as well.
Being mindful of the situation at hand is one of the most important aspects of dealing with isolation and disconnection.
At the university level, students and faculty at Florida National University, for example, have had to cope and acclimate to the new instructional formats – whether those are remote learning or via fully online courses. The adjustment has not been easy for some students all around. For many students, not having the physical presence of a professor to guide them through their academic journey has been challenging. Some students are simply not active learners through the online or remote formats; for better or worse, each student has a different way of learning and is unique in the way he or she approaches his or her studies. As such, FNU faculty and leadership have really worked diligently to bring as many human elements as possible to the remote and online learning experience. For the remote courses, professors offer live and recorded class lectures sessions through Blackboard Collaborate. While this cannot replace the face-to-face aspect of teaching and learning, such remote courses do assist students in establishing a connection with their professors and peers. Not having that personal contact with faculty and staff has undoubtedly been a challenge for many students who are accustomed to the traditional instructional format – one where conversation, thoughts and experiences are shared, thereby establishing a professional and working trust relationship between faculty and students.
A lack of personal connection can lead some people to experience feelings of loneliness and personal detachment. Aside from the deterioration of mental health, medical experts cite that loneliness and detachment – for a prolonged period of time – are linked to premature death, as more adults in our society live alone now than ever before1. Loneliness brought on by the required social distancing aspect of COVID-19 is now considered a social epidemic, that, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), targets older adults, low-income individuals, and those with preexisting mental health illnesses. Studies show that the pandemic is intensifying feelings of loneliness because of the forced reduced physical and social interaction among people.2 For others, including students, the isolation and loneliness can be linked to being unemployed or furloughed, and those feelings may become exacerbated by additional obligations such as caring for elderly parents or young children.
Medical experts indicate that individuals who suffer from a mental illness are already at a higher risk of suffering sadness and anxiety – however, the pandemic has exponentially increased those feelings and added to the loneliness surplus feelings of powerlessness.
Regarding students at FNU, the administration, faculty, and academic advisors have continually worked to stay in contact with the students to ensure they understand we are on their side when it comes to achieving their educational goals. For students who face challenges, academic advisors are there to support the student and provide the necessary professional assessment to get our students back on track. For those students who have yet to adapt to the fully online or remote teaching formats, faculty members are easily accessible via email or phone to offer guidance. One common trend we have seen is that – despite the pandemic – many students do not want to simply give up on their studies. In some cases, the situation has accelerated their desire to complete their degrees because some students work in positions that are not connected to their areas of studies. For those students who do work in positions within their area of study, their objective is to obtain their degree so they can have promotional opportunities within the same company.
The financial or economic component of the pandemic along with the isolation and detachment have created the perfect storm for individuals who already suffer from mental health illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, et al. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has seen how lockdowns and isolation coupled with financial uncertainty have taken individuals to the brink of a mental breakdown.3 According to The Guardian, distress line calls to a help center tripled between the months of February and March in 2020, with the majority of callers stating they felt enormous anxiety about COVID-19.4
Aside from the economic component and the isolation and loneliness from the pandemic, researchers also point to another issue as a result of decreased social or human contact: a decline in cognitive function.5 According to The Scientist, several studies indicate that chronic social isolation can have a negative impact in humans’ cognitive skills. One study showed that people who reported having fewer social contacts and activities at the beginning of the study showed a larger decline in cognitive function in the areas of verbal fluency and memory recall. Social isolation also has been linked to a deterioration of brain function, according to Dr. Andrew Steptoe, a psychologist and epidemiologist.6 The Scientist reports that in some cases, people who experience loneliness actually have reduced brain volumes in the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s region for decision-making and social behavior. Other areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, may also appear reduced in individuals and animals that experience isolation, according to the research, which also cites that the stress hormone cortisol – regulated by the hippocampus – is substantially higher in isolated animals. The amygdala – the area of the brain associated with a person’s emotion – also appears smaller in individuals who have a reduced or small social network, according to researchers.7
At FNU, when we realize that students are absent from class or are not logging in to their student BlackBoard accounts, faculty will immediately reach out to them to check in on their well-being. It is important for faculty, academic advisors and the administration to be active participants in the students’ educational objectives.
Thus, following up with students consistently and asking them how they are doing and whether we can assist them with anything has been a successful method to really connect with our students.
Showing that we care and have their best interests at heart are received in a positive manner by our students. They appreciate that we constantly follow up and hold them accountable – because many students actually recognize that they work best when they are under tight deadlines or when they know someone from FNU will follow up with them.
Other researchers point to the fact that because human beings are social creatures, exposure to long-term loneliness and social distancing can lead to increased risk for depression, heart disease, dementia, and unfortunately – even death.8 Even so, the good news is that medical experts also cite the fact that most people can overcome a great deal and are extremely resilient. The main concern is for those individuals who are already in a state of mental fragility with specific mental illnesses, thus by being exposed to increased isolation and detachment, may suffer compounding effects of anxiety, depression and overall sadness.
Additional studies conducted since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States have found that some of the immediate effects of social isolation have led to not only a deterioration of mental health but also a spike in substance abuse and domestic violence.9 In other cases, health behaviors such as substance abuse and insomnia or poor sleep patterns have been observed, along with emotional or overeating as a form of anxiety, according to the publication Health Affairs. The effect of forcibly having to social distance for human beings who are innately social has been extremely challenging. The conversion to remote working, online education, and the cancelling of events for sporting or entertainment have also intensified the feelings of detachment and isolation for many during the pandemic.
The good news is there are a variety of ways to combat isolation, loneliness and feelings of social detachment. Listed below are tips to help with those feelings that may lead to anxiety, sadness and depression, arising as a consequence of or as aggravators of COVID-19.10
- Engage in social activities (e.g., play a sport, go to the beach, share a picnic with household members)
- Spend time with family
- Put away the remote control and try to avoid the news and social media
- Reframe thoughts from negative to positive (e.g., think about the good things in life; create a gratitude list for all the things you’re thankful for; watch motivational videos on YouTube from self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins).
- Stay busy (e.g., with professional work, a hobby or a home project you have put off)
- Go outdoors (e.g., take a walk and get some fresh air)
- Offer to help others (e.g., seek out a nonprofit and see how you can assist them by contributing your time remotely either with meetings, fundraising, or working on a report)
- Take control of the situation (do not sleep too much or stay in bed; be active)
- Take care of yourself internally and externally to look and feel good
- Think of a new perspective; observe the things you are learning about yourself and others during this pandemic
- Talk to a professional if needed; there is no shame in wanting to see a therapist to vent to discuss your feelings of isolation and overall detachment from others
The World Health Organization offers supplementary tips on how to stay mentally stable during this unstable time in our world.11 These are:
- Get up and go to bed at similar times every day
- Keep up with personal hygiene
- Eat healthy meals at regular times
- Exercise regularly
- Allocate time for working and time for resting
- Make time for doing things you enjoy (i.e., enjoy your favorite music or watch a good movie)
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests taking steps to control people’s exposure to negative content (i.e., TV or print news) that could potentially lower their moods and enter a state of anxiety and isolation. NAMI recommends the following tips as ways to mentally and emotionally manage the pandemic:12
- Accept the situation and trust that a positive outcome is on the horizon (i.e., vaccines have been approved and are being offered; more research on the pandemic has been gathered)
- Distinguish between the global and local differences pertaining to the status of the pandemic
- Try to stay connected with friends and family through Skype, Facetime, email or simply text messaging
- Create a routine – even if you are not working full-time – in order to stay active and motivated
- Exercise a few times a week to maintain physical stamina
- Find everyday distractions to keep a busy mind (i.e., search for free webinars to learn a new skill, conduct household chores that have been neglected, watch an educational documentary, or undertake a do-it-yourself project)
- Learn a new language through YouTube videos
- Nicolas K. Trad, BA, J. Frank Wharam, MD, & Benjamin Druss, MD, Addressing Loneliness in the Era of COVID-19, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), June 1, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2766811
- National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), https://nami.org/Press-Media/In-The-News/2020/A-high-risk-perfect-storm-loneliness-and-financial-despair-take-toll-on-US-mental-health
- Nina Lakhani, A high-risk perfect storm, The Guardian, April 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/24/mental-health-coronavirus-lockdown-helplines
- Catherine Offord, How Social Isolation Affects the Brain, The Scientist, July 13, 2020, https://www.the-scientist.com/features/how-social-isolation-affects-the-brain-67701
- Greg Miller, Social distancing prevents infections but it can have unintended consequences, Science Magazine, March 16, 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/we-are-social-species-how-will-social-distancing-affect-us
- Julianne Holt-Lunstad, The Double Pandemic of Social Isolation and COVID-19, Health Affairs, June 22, 2020, https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200609.53823
- WebMD, How to Handle Coronavirus Isolation and Anxiety, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/lung/handle-isolation-and-anxiety#1
- World Health Organization, #HealthyAtHome-Mental Health, 2020, https://www.who.int/campaigns/connecting-the-world-to-combat-coronavirus/healthyathome/healthyathome—mental-health?gclid=Cj0KCQiA9P__BRC0ARIsAEZ6iriSoJ2Kk-rLHNBz_MEstGLjge09XNzQaqBCJLCWmEN6l7P715rGiTQaAp-BEALw_wcB
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/March-2020/Coronavirus-Mental-Health-Coping-Strategies
DR. MIREIDY FERNANDEZ, PsyD, is an adjunct professor at Florida National University, where she teaches general and core courses in psychology. Dr. Fernandez possesses 24 years of experience in the areas of college teaching, public policy and legislative auditing, urban and transportation planning, and communications. She holds a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Arizona Global Campus (Ashford), a Master’s in Public Administration from Hodges University and a Bachelor’s in Communications from Florida International University. Dr. Fernandez’s teaching philosophy is based on Carl Rogers’ Humanistic and Person-Centered Theory, thereby creating a learning environment that is student-centric.
Contact Information: Dr. Mireidy Fernandez, PsyD // Adjunct Psychology Faculty // Florida National University // firstname.lastname@example.org // www.fnu.edu