Jul. 20, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — Until a vaccine is available, social isolation remains the best protection against coronavirus, but with that measure comes concerns that fewer interactions with family and friends may lead to loneliness, depression or more significant mental health issues.

Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, researchers are finding that social isolation can actually boost mental health.

In a recently published study, a team of mental health experts led by a St. Edward’s University researcher reports that people who engage in social isolation measures to protect themselves and others against COVID-19 are experiencing less coronavirus-related anxiety.

“The narrative often told in the media is that isolation is causing people to be depressed” said Jane Milman, adjunct faculty in Counseling at St. Edward’s and the study’s lead researcher. “So, I was surprised to find that the more people socially isolate, the lower their anxiety, even after accounting for COVID-related loss of employment, increased cost of living, and loss of childcare.”

“It’s not just that they're doing better,” Milman added. “Their anxiety does not appear to be in the clinically significant range. Meanwhile, those who are not taking measures to stop the spread of COVID do appear to experience clinically significant levels of anxiety. That’s a really powerful contrast. Making the choice to socially isolate gives you something that can support your mental health during the pandemic.”

The researchers found that social isolation helps mental health by giving a sense of control at a time when many are experiencing an overall loss of control at the hands of this pandemic.

Stress-coping research suggests that it is the loss of control, safety, and predictability that often defines whether an event is perceived to be traumatic.

“So, it’s almost like social isolation provides us with a trauma inoculation against the pandemic by giving us some measure of control, safety, and predictability during the pandemic,” Milman said.

In both a preliminary study and the more extensive study published in June in the journal Death Studies, Milman and her colleagues Sherman Lee, who leads the Coronavirus Anxiety Project at Christopher Newport University, and Robert Neimeyer, Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, collaborated on a project that examines the role that social isolation plays in shaping the psychological impact of the coronavirus. As part of this work, they developed one of the first tools for measuring anxiety specifically about the coronavirus, which predicts suicidal ideation, drug/alcohol use, depression, and more.

They then surveyed 408 adults across the country, seeking to test the hypothesis that social isolation serves a protective psychological function. Among the main findings was that participants who engaged in social isolation reported significantly less core belief violation and increased meaning-making. In turn, those whose core beliefs were less violated by the pandemic or who made more meaning of the pandemic reported significantly lower coronavirus anxiety. A violation of core beliefs occurs when an event or situation causes an individual to question or reassess their core beliefs regarding the controllable, fair and predictable nature of the world, among other things.

The study also compared social isolation to non-social preventative measures, such as hand washing or wearing a mask. It found that measures such as hand washing could foster the perception of an immediate COVID threat and elevate anxiety, while social distancing gives a personal sense of control and agency, thereby decreasing anxiety.

The researchers believe these outcomes could inform policymakers as they make decisions about social distancing policies as well as mental health professionals as they develop mental health interventions in the COVID context.

More immediately, the study’s main findings support the case for practicing social isolation.

“If we want people to do well mentally, and we want to stop infection rates, stay the course and socially isolate,” Milman said. “Even people who have lost jobs to the pandemic still do better mentally if they’re socially isolated. And that’s a big take-home message that even the economic impacts of this are going to be better experienced, mentally speaking, if you’re socially isolating.”