The psychological reactions induced by social isolation

Culture and society

The psychological reactions induced by social isolation

3 Oct, 2020

The prolongation of the quarantine, essential for the protection of everyone’s health, poses numerous challenges from a psychological point of view. We find ourselves forced to give up the daily routine and live apart, just when danger and uncertainty forcefully activate the need for the other. How do social relations evolve in this time of crisis? How are - and will be - affected our interpersonal relationships?


The psychological impact of quarantine

A recent review published in The Lancet on the psychological impact of quarantine draws attention to the significant psychological reactions induced by social isolation: from the increase in the level of psychological distress, to the onset of feelings of fear, disorientation, anger, emotional emptying and resignation.

In some cases the development of real psychopathological pictures is also highlighted, mainly characterized by anxious, depressive symptoms and sleep disorders.

The studies highlight the presence of two categories that are particularly at risk of developing significant psychological sequelae: healthcare workers (who experience the double stress of 'dangerous' work and quarantine at home) and psychiatric patients.

In general, all subjects with previous psychic frailties seem to be particularly exposed.

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Antidotes to fear

There are several behaviors that can currently act as an antidote to fear and social isolation:

  1. seek clear and well-founded information on the nature of the virus, the possible risks and the security measures to be implemented;

  2. use the technological tools in order to preserve, if possible, one’s work activity and keep alive the contact with loved ones and with the extended social network;

  3. plan daily moments of leisure, and, if possible, family sharing, to relieve tension and stress;

  4. have contacts of services and specialists able to offer medical and psychological assistance in case of need.

Furthermore, keeping in mind the importance of the altruistic repercussions of one’s own isolation behavior for the sake of the safety of the whole community, is an essential point to preserve the sense of connection with the world and contain the experience of loneliness.

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When the emergency will be over

Once the emergency is over, what effects will the quarantine have on our interpersonal relationships?

Some studies show that, even back to normal, we will tend to maintain behaviors similar to those adopted during the emergency for a few months: excessive attention to hygiene, avoidance of people who have symptoms associated with COVID-19 (eg . who sneeze and cough) and social contacts in closed or crowded places.

Finally, many of us are using face masks, especially in hospitals. We will have to get used to a return of the expression of emotions and full facial expressions.

Darwin had already stressed the importance of this aspect in interpersonal relationships, without being able to predict that we would experience periods in which the expression of emotion, hindered by a mask, would be completely entrusted to our gazes.


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Written by

Valentina Di Mattei
Valentina Di Mattei

She is Associate Professor and Specialist in Clinical Psychology UniSR, she coordinates the Health Clinical Psychology Service of the San Raffaele Hospital and is Founder and Head of the “Salute allo Specchio” program. She loves poetry, classical music and art in all its forms. With Dostoevskij she is deeply convinced that beauty will save the world and for this reason, with make-up and brushes she has invented a method to make people who experience the psychological consequences of heavy therapies feel better. She collects books by beloved writers that she reads in the evening with her children, trying to cultivate imagination and creativity and transmitting with Calvino the importance of taking life lightly, as “lightness is not superficiality but it’s gliding on things from above, not having boulders on the heart”. As a personal anti-stress therapy she uses the green of nature, the blue of the sea and the gold color of her golden retrievers.

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