Mental Challenges

How To Deal With the Psychological Impact of Re-Entering Quarantine

Emily Laurence

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There’s no way around it: March and April were rough. Not only was the deadly COVID-19 pandemic taking the lives of thousands around the globe, the disease had no cure, which forced all of us indoors to prevent further spread of the virus. These measures were absolutely necessary, but they uprooted our lives in ways large and small.

There were virtual happy hours, Zoom weddings, an uptick in groceries being delivered straight to your door. Everyone adapted, patiently waiting it out until everything returned to “normal.” Two months turned into three and states across the country slowly started tip-toeing back into reopening. (With the exception of nine states that swung the doors wide open completely.) Friends and extended families started meeting for dinner or drinks after months of not seeing each other IRL. People dug out their swimsuits and braved the public pools. But it looks like the U.S. re-opened too soon. As we enter July, many states across the South and West (from Florida to Texas, Arizona, and California) are seeing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, and are putting restrictions in place once again.

Whether you agree with the re-opening reversals or not, going back into quarantine can be a heavy thought. Jennifer Murayama, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Alma and a teaching faculty member at The Ackerman Institute for the Family, says that the prolonged state of uncertainty has left many people anxious, emotionally drained, restless, and frustrated.  Psychologically, going back into quarantine will affect people differently depending on their circumstances. “The degree of psychological impact of the u-turn is likely to be proportionate to the amount of opportunity loss involved, as well as the extent of planning and preparation that a person had to do, in anticipation for the re-opening,” she says.

For those who thought the dangers surrounding COVID-19 were getting better, Murayama says these feelings can be amplified. “There may be a lot of folks who were optimistic about the shelter-in-place restrictions being lifted and made a lot of plans accordingly,” she says. “Socialization is huge, but it’s not the only thing that people are missing or losing with continued quarantine. Having to further delay or repeatedly lose out on big milestones and transitions can have tremendous impact on the emotional and psychological health of people and relationships.” The same could be said for the stress of lost economic opportunities due to new closures, which has a big impact on mental health as well.

“The difference between when the country first went into quarantine and now, is our collective diminished patience and increased frustration and mistrust,” adds director of clinical content at Talkspace therapist Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC. “When we experience something so outside of our expectations, it takes time to adjust. Our mental health was contingent on our ability to  accept and pivot; to adjust our mindset and expectations. Now,  we cognitively understand what being in quarantine feels like. With that knowledge comes a sense of dread and frustration, a new reaction. For some, going perceivably backward can feel worse.”

But on the plus side, Murayama says many people have found ways to cope during quarantine, which will likely make them better equipped to navigate it the second time around. ” I do think that because it’s been so long, many have developed routines that are working for them and have discovered outlets and activities that are helping them cope.”

That said, the transition to going back into quarantine likely won’t be easy for anyone, whether it’s happening to you now or in a few months (if concerns about a second wave in the fall come true). These mental health tips for getting through quarantine (again) straight from therapists may help.

1. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel

Murayama says that whatever you’re feeling right now, it’s 100 percent okay; resist judging yourself. “Quickly stifling and suppressing your true feelings with ‘I should/shouldn’t feel…’ will only prolong or complicate your process of healthy acceptance and adjustment,” she says. Murayama says putting how you feel down on paper through journaling can be an outlet and help you feel better than keeping it bottled up inside. Calling a loved one to talk about how you feel can help, too, she adds.

Even though it may be difficult, Dr. Cirbus says to try to remember that lawmakers issuing re-closure orders are acting with good intentions. “Try to think of them not as restrictions but as a pathway to ensuring that our families and communities will be able to persevere in the healthiest way,” she says.

2. Look for new possibilities

With most vacations, pool parties, and cookouts on hold, it can feel like there’s nothing to look forward to this summer. Murayama says it’s important to look at your circumstances from a fresh, new perspective. “When we are upset or anxious, we tend to think in extreme and limiting ways,” she says. “Pausing to breathe and think more critically and resourcefully about what you already have within your reach and what is still possible within these constraints is key. Once you let your feelings breathe, then you are in a better position to try to see things from different angles and expand how you think about and experience what is happening.”

For example, you may see the extended time alone as an opportunity to spend more quality time with the people you live with. Or, you can find creative ways to express gratitude for the relationships with those you can’t see IRL, such as writing them old-school letters. If you live alone, how can you relish your solo time and do something you never got around to doing because your calendar was always completely booked?

“Your summer might not look like it has in past summers, but it can be filled with activities that are nourishing for your mind and body,” Dr. Cirbus says. “Make a list of all the staycation activities you can think of and start crossing them off!” Exploring new hikes, trying new workout apps or challenges, reading the stack of books that’s been on your nightstand for months…none of that’s cancelled. “Aim for two things per week to look forward to, either on your own or with someone,” Dr. Cirbus suggests.

3. Take action

Once you’ve identified what you want to do, Murayama says it’s important to actually do it. She also says focusing on what you can do and not what you can’t do can help change your perspective. If you love the outdoors, you can still go for a walk. Even though you may not be able to hug your best friend, you can still call her. “Separate your feelings from facts,” Murayama says. “Locate your feelings and let them breathe, but don’t let them run the show or spiral out of control.”

Dr. Cirbus says it’s important to keep an eye out for silver linings, or things you actually enjoyed during quarantine part one. “Inevitably things will shift over time and we might not have the downtime we have now, for example,” she says. “Focus on the present. It helps to make the most of our days and create joy in the here and now.”

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