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Coronavirus outbreak: How to avoid going stir-crazy during self-quarantine

People are struggling with boredom, the loss of freedom and uncertainty over what happens next.
Woman thinking next to window
/ Source: TODAY

As Americans are being asked to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak, many are learning first-hand the definition of stir-crazy — feeling “distraught because of prolonged confinement.”

The city of San Francisco on Monday ordered residents to shelter in place until April 7 except to go out for groceries or other essential needs. Other communities are also asking people to avoid going out unless absolutely necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Some people must stay at home for 14 days if they were potentially exposed to someone with the disease.

We’re surrounded by pantries full of food, movies on demand and loved ones in the next room or online, so why would sitting at home for a few weeks be such a challenge?

Any time people have a major disruption in their routine and lose their “social rhythm reinforcers” — going to school or work, or attending social events — it’s a jolt, said Simon Rego, chief psychologist at Montefiore Health System and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“When we disrupt that daily rhythm cycle, it can cause stress,” Rego told TODAY.

“The removal of those things that normally lift our mood — like connecting with others, feeling we had a good productive day, getting out and exercising, moving about — when you take those things away… it can potentially have an impact on people’s mood.”

Then, there’s boredom, the loss of freedom and uncertainty over what happens next.

So how do you avoid going stir-crazy when events get canceled, restaurants close, streets become empty and your home becomes your world? Rego offered these tips:

1. Focus on the good you’re doing for others.

Always remember: You are doing your part in protecting the vulnerable people in your neighborhood and community who are at risk for the severe form of COVID-19.

Thinking about “the altruism and compassion in it helps us feel a little bit better about our decisions,” Rego raid.

Indeed, knowing others will benefit from your decisions and health authorities are genuinely grateful for your efforts “can make stressful situations easier to bear,” wrote the authors of a recent study about the psychological impact of quarantine.

2. Maintain a daily structure.

It’s a good idea to keep a similar schedule to the one you had before the outbreak began: Wake up at a consistent time, get dressed, eat when you would normally eat, make time for exercise and stick to the lifestyle you always had, assuming it’s a healthy one, Rego advised.

In other words, don’t sit in pajamas all day and overeat or drink alcohol excessively. Turning to substances to cope could be problematic in both the short and long term, he warned.

3. Start a journal.

Documenting these strange times could be both memorable and therapeutic. When you look back at the Great Quarantine of 2020, it may be hard to believe all these things actually happened. As you’re living through historic events now, there’s a lot to process.

“It’s helpful to put those worries on paper,” Rego said. “Also use it to practice balanced thinking… what you don’t want is a running log that takes an overly negative and pessimistic view because then reviewing that and re-reviewing that can prime you for rumination, which can backfire and bring down your mood.”

4. Keep a realistic and objective view.

“Our mind may create scenarios where it seems like doing this may be forever,” Rego said.

Resist thinking this way. Stay informed by getting your information from reliable, trusted sites and question rumors.

5. Tackle all those projects you’ve been putting off.

Start a garden, update your resume, tackle some home improvement projects, write a book or let Marie Kondo help you get rid of clutter. Consider this an opportunity to do something productive.

“Capitalizing on the opportunities rather than focusing on the threats makes a big difference,” Rego said.

6. Deepen your relationships.

Stay in touch with friends and loved ones via chat, text, FaceTime and other tech tools. If you are lonely, ask your doctor about tele-therapy or find an online group that’s offering support.

“We can, if we are thoughtful and deliberate about it, still maintain our social support networks,” Rego noted. Just be sure to contact people who are actually supportive and helpful rather than those who may unwittingly amplify your stress, he advised.

If your entire family is staying at home, it’s an opportunity to connect in ways that might otherwise get pushed aside during the business of everyday activities.