Isloation

We’re five weeks into Gov. Roy Cooper’s shelter in place order, and how’s everyone doing?

Watched “Tiger King?”

Baked sourdough bread?

Had a Zoom cocktail hour with friends?

When the statewide shelter in place order took effect on March 30, there was a sense that this was something new, a challenge for the collective good, a break from routine, all of which may have supplied us with a burst of energy that now feels depleted.

“We’re close to five weeks out and it’s getting old,” said Andy Hagler, the executive director of the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County. “And this is the hard part because it appears shelter in place, social distancing and washing hands are working to flatten the curve. But it’s getting hard to parent, hard to keep a household, hard to pay the bills.

“We are creatures of habit. As an American culture, we love our jobs, and life has been very disrupted, and we’ve all had to make a lot of changes.”

North Carolinians will spend at least another week in near-isolation. Gov. Roy Cooper extended the shelter in place order until May 8, after which he will evaluate whether the state has made enough progress to loosen some restrictions.

But we still don’t know how long it will be before we can visit our favorite coffee shop, go to a movie theater, hear live music or hug our grandparents. The massive upheaval to our daily lives can take a toll on our mental health. In fact, it may have already, experts said.

“If I told you that you will have a new set of social norms forced upon you, that the ways you showed people you care is seen as a threat, that you’ll have to change the way you get food and the way you eat — and this doesn’t even take into account the threat of illness — it would be incredibly overwhelming and stressful,” said Heath Greene, a clinical psychologist who teaches psychology at Wake Forest University.

Given that upheaval, he said, it would be a mistake to underestimate the amount of stress people are dealing with every day.

“We’ve had a lot of loss and whenever there is loss, there is increased chance for depression,” he said. “Not knowing what the next two weeks, the next six months are going to be like? All of those are losses, and when added up together, they become quite large.”

Winston-Salem resident Sharon Reiss said she is struggling with a loss of balance in her life. Since the shelter in place order was put in place on March 30, she has experienced feelings of anxiety, fear and thankfulness.

“Those three things are like a roller coaster every day,” said Reiss, who works from home for a benefits company.

Reiss calls herself an extrovert who is feeling the loss of human interaction.

“Every day has normal, anxious moments, but everything seems so amplified now,” she said.

Reiss tries to recognize when negative feelings start to bubble up and act to contain them. She and her husband will sometimes take long drives to parts of the city they are unfamiliar with to stave off anxiety.

She also tries to moderate her news intake, resisting the urge to compulsively check her phone.

“I had to stop and give myself a break,” Reiss said. “Nothing I’m doing today is going to change what is happening in the United States besides me taking the precautions I’m supposed to be taking.”

Recognizing your feelings can help you address discomfort, said Paige Bentley, an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

“There’s a phrase, ‘Name it to tame it,’ so if I can name the thing I’m feeling, it doesn’t have power over me,” Bentley said. “If we can start by connecting with how we are feeling, then we can say, ‘OK, I feel sluggish, so do I want to continue sitting on the bed or should I get on my Elliptical?’ It doesn’t have to be for 25 minutes, it could be for five minutes.”

Human brains, Bentley said, are wired for novelty, so it’s little wonder that prolonged isolation or near-isolation becomes difficult. People may find themselves getting easily irritated and lashing out. Those may be signs that a person’s capacity for coping is wearing thin.

One way to cope, she said, is to change some of the language about the experience.

For instance, try substituting “social distancing” with “compassionate spacing.”

“Though it sounds simplistic, the words we use make a difference in how we feel. Social distancing feels punitive. Compassionate spacing brings to mind the larger intention and infuses this challenging experience with meaning and purpose,” Bentley said.

Another approach is to see the silver linings in this experience.

“I don’t want to diminish the hell that some are living through,” Greene said, “but maybe there are things we can learn from this, just the fact that we grow when we face adversity. What do I take for granted? What are things I’ve had a break from that I’d like to change?”

People who are performance-oriented may view this as a time to learn about themselves and opt for quiet rather than focusing on doing something productive like learning to play the ukulele or speak French.

“Before you take on some new thing,” Greene said, “consider what it would be like to rest.”

lodonnell@wsjournal.com

336-727-7420

@lisaodonnellWSJ

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