Between the constant news updates on the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and the loneliness that comes from social distancing or quarantining to slow its spread, current events can take a toll on mental health.
According to Google, searches for “loneliness” have now reached the highest level since it started tracking searches in 2004. While epidemiologists emphasize that social distancing — canceling events, closing schools, limiting person-to-person contact — is essential to reducing the spread of coronavirus and ease the pressure on healthcare services, it exacerbates the feeling of loneliness.
At the same time, coronavirus is inescapable, dominating conversations and news. Traditional methods of distraction and escape — such as sports and entertainment — are no longer an option, with every major sports league postponing their seasons, and restaurants, bars and theaters shutting down. And when beloved actors like Tom Hanks and Idris Elba get infected, it’s a reminder that no one is immune.
It all leads to increased stress and anxiety, Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist and director of Innovation360, an outpatient resource center, and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, tells PEOPLE.
“Situations with high levels of uncertainty are a breeding ground for excessive worry and anxiety,” he says. “The coronavirus outbreak is particularly challenging because it has layers of uncertainty. It’s a new virus and the experts are having to very quickly learn how it acts and moves in a community. There is still some uncertainty about what we do as individuals to prevent it. If you do get sick, it can be challenging to figure out if you have bad allergies, the flu or coronavirus.”
Gilliland says that it’s important to keep up healthy habits right now — not just to avoid getting sick, but to improve mental health.
“Focus on three key pillars of health: Sleep is power, food is fuel, movement is medicine,” he says. “That should be your dashboard for a healthy immune system. Check your sleep and make sure you’re getting a good quality and amount of sleep. Food, good foods, are the best source of vitamins and minerals that build the body and immune system. And bodies are built to move. Keep moving and try to add exercise a few times a week.”
And Dr. Robin Gurwitch, psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center and PEOPLE Health Squad member, advises that people maintain as much of a routine as possible, especially for those with kids.
“This means bedtimes, mealtimes, and behavior rules,” she tells PEOPLE. “Getting good rest and eating healthy is important for overall health.”
It’s also important, Gilliland says, to avoid boredom or isolation as much as possible.
“Boredom creates additional worry and anxiety,” he says. “It’s critical that we stay active physically and mentally. Mix it up physically — try new workouts, get outdoors, use apps for exercise — and mentally — watch TV or online learning, read a book, start painting. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that recommendations to stay away from people and large gatherings means that we have to stay in our rooms. Look to get outdoors, whether that’s sitting on your balcony, going for a drive with your windows down, going for a trail run or bike ride. Or walk your dog, even if you don’t have one.”
And when possible, Gurwitch says to step away from COVID-19 coverage on the news and in conversations.
“Truly take a break,” she says. “Consider what you typically do when stressed. These actions may include mindfulness, watching a movie, reading a book, working on puzzles, art, journaling, gardening and listening to music.”
To manage isolation, Gilliland and Gurwitch say reach out to family and friends as much as possible.
“We have to guard against isolation and loneliness during this time because isolation is the most savage mental health symptom for humans,” Gilliland says. “During times of uncertainty and excessive worry, we don’t want the only voice we hear to be the one in our head. Fight to stay connected with friends and family (even co-workers) on the phone or through text messages and emails. And don’t talk about the virus all the time, talk about life things.”
“Maintain connections. This can be done via FaceTime, Skype, etc. as well as by phone and other social media platforms,” Gurwitch says, adding that going “old-school” and making cards for friends and family is another fun way to stay in touch. “This maintains connections and gives children a project to complete.”
Gilliland also recommends a few online resources for when anxiety or stress gets to be too much. He’s a fan of meditation apps Calm, Headspace and Unplug, and to challenge the brain, he suggests online learning videos like MasterClass and TED Talks.
“These things are not specific to ‘self-help,’ but they do help manage our stress by giving the mind a break from the stressful situation,” he says. “They are a necessary distraction that allows stress to decrease for a time.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.