Stop the Quarantine Frenzy!
(this is an article I wrote for our school's Lucidity Science magazine, for a special edition on COVID-19)
It’s no fun when your feet are tied to the house on a rainy day. Extend that period to who-knows-how-long and you may feel as if you want to jump off the walls! There have been numerous reports where people were caught outside their houses during lockdown or going out with their friends at the risk of being infected. It seems as if humans aren’t wired to stay in isolation for so long. Psychology can help explain the reason behind that.
One big reason why quarantine and social isolation is so hard for us is because humans are, by nature, social beings. The most well-known evidence to support this is the experiment done in 1944, with Fritz Heider and Mary Simmel’s animation of two triangles and a circle orbiting a rectangle. While the animation merely consists of shapes, participants of the experiment found it nearly impossible not to interpret these objects as human beings and tried to construct a social narrative explaining their movements (Heider and Simmel, 1944).
We even see shapes through social lenses. We’ve evolved into social beings, as cooperation with each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh circumstances. Although ‘survival threats’ have lessened nowadays, our brain is stimulated when we feel like we belong.
Unfortunately, quarantine could end up causing more damage than we think. A study from the medical journal ‘The Lancet’, indicated that it could result in a range of mental health issues — starting from insomnia to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Pereira-Sanchez et al., 2020). While you might be thinking PTSD is too extreme, this wasn't the first study that showed these results. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, approximately 19% of the quarantined patients suffered PTSD (Wu et al., 2009).
Fears of infection, boredom, inadequate supplies, news about the disease (or the lack thereof), and financial loss all contribute as factors that cause mental health concerns. Enough gloomy talk, though. Psychologists have predicted that this experience of social isolation could lead to positive psychological growth. In other words, what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. On one hand, a significant crisis can cause post-traumatic stress.
Yet within that crisis, there is also a positive response called ‘adversarial growth’ (Joseph and Linley, 2005). This is our ability to grow stronger and more resilient. When facing a dire situation, the adrenal gland releases hormones to make our body respond in two ways: ‘fight’ or ‘fight’. But humans are able to train themselves to jump into the ‘tend and befriend’
the response that releases hormones like oxytocin instead. This response encourages us to build and maintain our social relationships to reduce stress and anxiety.
Additionally, there are steps that you can take to get a hold of your mental health during this peculiar period. The first step to take is to combat boredom. You could do this by creating (and sticking to) a routine. This will give you a sense of normality and productivity. Starting a new hobby or catching up in the new Netflix series you were eyeing will also help distract your mind from the crisis. You should also be taking time to care for yourself, both physically and mentally. Eat healthily, get plenty of rest, and try to exercise daily. Finally, established from the paragraphs above, you should try to remain in contact with friends and families.
They can be great supporters to help you through this situation.
Heider, F. and Simmel, M. (1944). An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, 57(2), pp.243.
Joseph, S. and Linley, P.A. (2005). Positive Adjustment to Threatening Events: An Organismic Valuing Theory of Growth through Adversity. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), pp.262–280.
Wu, P., Fang, Y., Guan, Z., Fan, B., Kong, J., Yao, Z., Liu, X., Fuller, C.J., Susser, E., Lu, J. and Hoven, C.W. (2009). ‘The Psychological Impact of the SARS Epidemic on Hospital Employees in China: Exposure, Risk Perception, and Altruistic Acceptance of Risk.’ Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatric, 54(5), pp.302–311. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780353/