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Staying Away: The Psychological Impact of Social Distancing

Katie Lewis, PhD|
April 10, 2020
Right now, the physical health and well-being of the country depend on our adherence to the recent and ongoing implementation of social distancing (SD) in communities across the globe to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). However, the current scale of SD is unprecedented and may lead to significant and lasting negative psychological effects. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and a recent review of studies about quarantine during infectious disease outbreaks[1], SD can lead to a higher prevalence of:
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Feelings of frustration
  • Boredom
At the same time, SD could carry some benefits for certain individuals, such as an increased sense of well-being from time spent with family or the ability to focus on self-care, and a greater sense of altruism as individuals learn to view SD as a way to protect others from illness and harm.
But what determines the positive and negative psychological effects of SD? The answer is that there are psychological, environmental, and situational factors that can interact in complex and unpredictable ways. Attitudes about relationships, ability to self-motivate or tolerate uncertainty, housing security, quality of one’s home life, availability of support services, and frequency of remote social contact (phone or videoconference) with friends, family, and co-workers are just some of the many variables.
Complicating matters is the fact that there has been no empirical research on the impact of SD on psychological functioning. Just now, researchers across the globe are designing and implementing studies to better understand how individuals manage their daily experiences during SD.
In fact, in my role as Research Psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center, I recruited subjects last year for a study examining feelings of loneliness during SD. This study was open to all adults (18 years or older) who currently resided in the United States and who owned a smartphone. Findings from studies such as this one will ultimately enable public health officials to develop better supportive interventions that will reduce the negative impact of SD on mental health.
In the meantime, a number of recommendations have been put forward for managing feelings like stress, boredom, and loneliness during SD, including:
  • Clear communication of information between local public health officials and the communities they serve, including implementing local alert systems[2]
  • Shifting the mental framing of SD–believing that one is “safe at home” versus “stuck at home” can have a profound effect on sense of agency, and reduce feelings of helplessness and fear
  • Maintaining remote social contact with friends and colleagues can help limit feelings of loneliness
  • Enjoying simple physical comforts, like a hot shower, sipping a hot beverage, or wrapping oneself in a blanket may reduce feelings of loneliness[3]
  • Devoting time to larger projects that require longer periods of attention and psychological investment may be less taxing and stressful than planning multiple time-limited activities throughout the day
For individuals who are struggling with feelings of anxiety, depression, or other symptoms, a number of helpful resources exist, including:
1. SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: 24/7, 365-day-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters–call 800.985.5990
2. 7 Cups: A free online text chat service that connects individuals with a trained listener for emotional support and counseling – visit:
3. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Those who are experiencing suicidal thought and impulses can call 800.273.8255 or text HOME to 741741 for support
4. General Information from Mental Health Organizations on Accessing Supportive Resources:
[1] Brooks, Webster, Smith, Woodland, Wessely, Greenberg & Rubin, 2020
[2] Brooks and colleagues (2020)
[3] Bargh & Shalev, 2012