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Coping with isolation during coronavirus

How can we stave off depression and loneliness at home?

As social distancing and self-quarantine become more common to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people losing face-to-face contact with co-workers, friends and family may feel lonely, depressed and anxious. 

Northwestern Medicine experts explain why isolation affects your mood and offer strategies to cope with being stuck at home. To set up interviews with any of them, contact marla-paul@northwestern.edu.

Quotes from the experts 

Judith Moskowitz

Judith Moskowitz is a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who researches skills that increase positive emotions.

“First, acknowledge that this is a stressful time and likely to bring up lots of emotions like fear and anxiety. But there are things you can do to make it less stressful. 

“If you have to work at home, combat feelings of isolation by using web conferencing options so you can connect ‘face-to-face’ with co-workers. 

“If you are stuck home with your kids, see it as an opportunity to connect with them – play games, read books or watch movies together. Creating small positive moments like these can help you cope better with the stress of having to stay home. Write down the positive moments in a day to help you keep a perspective and appreciation for all that is still good. Encourage your kids to do the same.

“Call your friends and neighbors – especially if you know someone who lives alone. It helps to commiserate with others and gives you a sense of community that you’re all in this together.”

Dr. Phyllis Zee

Dr. Phyllis Zee is a professor of neurology and director of the Northwestern Medicine Sleep Disorders Center.

“It’s essential to have plenty of exposure to outdoor light, particularly in the morning, for a strong immune system and positive mood. Light is one of nature’s strongest signals, aligning our biological and social clocks with the sun. This syncing results in better sleep, more efficient metabolism and healthier cardiovascular and immune functions. In addition to these health benefits, light signals reach brain areas that regulate mood, and exposure to bright light during the day can boost mood and performance.

“Bright light exposure (preferably natural daylight from windows) or artificial lighting (above 500 lux), particularly in the morning and into the early afternoon, can help improve sleep, mood, physical health and general well-being.  It’s a cost-effective way to maintain health.

“Dimming lights two to three hours before bedtime can help enhance sleep and allow the natural rise in melatonin secretion.” 

Andrea Graham

Andrea Graham is an assistant professor of medical social sciences at Feinberg. 

“Being socially isolated can remove you from the things that provide joy and pleasure – friends, activities and exercise. We’re social beings. It’s important to interact with other people and feel connected to others for laughter, light heartedness and support. And participating in activities has an impact on our mood. Isolation and disruption to routine can create feelings of sadness and loneliness. 

“To combat those feelings, schedule some at-home workouts, which can boost your mood. Thankfully, we live in a digitally connected society. Use social media as a form of enjoyment and for support. Facetime/Skype/group chats can provide a way to connect with friends and family. 

“Keep doing activities that make you feel good -- even though they’re at home – to help you maintain a positive mental state. And maintain some kind of routine, still waking up at a consistent, reasonable time. It’s good for your mood. It feels less aimless with that big disruption in routine.”