Alone, Together: Coping with Isolation and COVID-19

Service Member working from home on their couch

Nearly 400 years ago, the English poet John Donne said, “no man is an island entire of itself.”  It was a clear articulation that we, as humans, do not live alone—we need culture, socialization and friendship to truly thrive.

The bonds we build between co-workers, family and friends are critical to high-performing teams.  It’s one of the reasons why the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research develops, improves and validates trainings designed to decrease feelings of isolation and subsequently improve resilience, effectiveness and behavioral health.

“We are essentially social beings; units that harness that sense of social connection and that create a strong and positive emotional culture are more effective,” says Dr. Amy Adler, acting director of the WRAIR’s Research Transition Office, which bridges the gulf between laboratory and field to get research advances into Army training.

Yet working closely with others conflicts with the central tenet of preventing the spread of COVID-19: the concept of “social distancing”—or, remaining at least six feet apart from others—limiting gatherings to six or fewer people and staying home to the greatest extent possible.  What happens when teams are not able to spend time together building that cohesion?

It is important to remember that the term social distancing relates to physical separation—not a lack of human contact.  “There's lots of data showing that loneliness leads to multiple health problems such as depression, sleep problems, cognitive decline and a decrease in immunological and cardiovascular function,” says Col. Jeffrey Thomas, director of the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at WRAIR, a translational and expeditionary effort designed to identify and mitigate brain health threats to Soldiers.

Says Thomas, “Some studies have even shown that loneliness is linked to mortality.”

While there is much that we cannot control about this pandemic—such as how long it will continue or whether our neighbors or coworkers are as diligent about handwashing and social distancing as we are—there are things we can do to mitigate stress, build resilience and make the isolation more bearable.

Keep connected: Check in electronically with friends and family.  Set up regular times to talk, host an online gathering, or even eat dinner together virtually to create a new sense of connection.
Make time for fun: When you have downtime, how can you inject fun into your routine?  Complete that old puzzle sitting on your shelf, learn something new, cook something complicated, play board games or even play online games with a friend across the country.  Use your extra time in productive and fun ways.
Look out for others: Check in with those who live alone or are particularly at risk for infection and be on the lookout for those in your life who may be a little too quiet.  Text your neighbor or call someone in your community who may not have a social network to rely on.  Random acts of kindness may mean a lot to someone who is either lonely or simply cannot get out of the house.
Consider your own degree of loneliness: If you are feeling lonely, get ahead of the game and reach out to someone you trust.  “The good news is that technology helps us stay connected these days in ways we couldn't have dreamed of 25 years ago,” says Thomas.  Everyone is hunkering down around the world; it’s a shared experience and one that you can use as an excuse to reach out and connect.
Use more than email: It can be easy to misread or accidentally ignore an email.  Reaching out by phone and video chat to make sure you and your coworkers are on the same page can help maintain some of the strength of in-person communications and minimize misunderstandings.
Maintain a routine: When working from home it is easy to forgo the normal routine since we are no longer kept to a regular schedule and don’t have the mental transition period that usually accompanies a daily commute.  A routine can help make your day feel a little more normal.  
Sleep: Making sure that you go to sleep and wake up at consistent times is a critical component of a healthy routine.  A full night’s sleep could also be an important way to avoid infection and stay healthy.
Exercise: We may not all be able to run a marathon on our balcony but substitutes like jumping jacks or running in place can go a long way to releasing stress.    
Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is a type of meditation aimed at focusing attention on the present moment without elaboration or judgement.  Research has found that practicing mindfulness can lower depression, anxiety, stress, aggression and risk-taking behaviors.  There are many DOD-approved applications for mindfulness available.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by feelings of depression or anxiety, there are places to turn for active duty personnel, family members and veterans.  

Research laboratories under the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command including WRAIR, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease and the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity, are working diligently on a range of solutions to detect, treat and prevent COVID-19, including a vaccine.

As these efforts progress and we take precautionary measures like social distancing, regularly washing hands for twenty seconds and getting a full night’s sleep to stay safe from COVID-19, it is more important than ever that we also take measures to protect our mental health and virtually reach out to those around us.