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Don’t sprint – Avoiding emotional exhaustion in social isolation

April 20, 2020
By: 
Andrew Harris
PhD Candidate, Biophysics
University of Guelph

Canadians want to do everything they can to help in these uncertain times. Fortunately, we were given clear instructions from Prime Minister Trudeau through one of his daily briefings to the nation which are sorely needed and appreciated: “Listening is your duty, and staying home is your way to serve.”

I agree with this message and take social distancing very seriously but like many Canadians, I have some questions.

For how long will staying home be necessary?

While Canada has observed some decrease in the growth rate of Covid-19 [1], we still don’t know how long we will have to remain in a state of social isolation owing to a lack of data and challenges related to testing. It remains a difficult problem with many unknowns but medical professionals are weighing in. In March, Health Minister Patty Hajdu predicted that the social distancing measures would last months while others have predicted that intermittent social distancing measures may be needed for 18 months or more [2, 3]. The government of Ontario announced on April 3rd that the province expects that the pandemic could last between 18 to 24 months depending on the adherence of the public to social distancing recommendations and our collective ability to reduce the reproductive rate of the virus [4, 5]. American researchers suggest that unless interventions such as vaccines become available or hospital capacity increases, intermittent social distancing recommendations could remain until 2022 in the US [6]. This is a marathon and we need to avoid sprinting.

How should we listen?

We need to remain informed of the rapidly evolving situation to ensure that our daily actions are guided by the most relevant and up-to-date evidence available. We all know the basics: socially isolate, wash our hands regularly, and maintain a physical distance of at least two meters with others who are not part of our household. Many of us have a strong desire to remain well versed in all developments related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the global and domestic responses to the pandemic. It is important that we read reliable sources and educate ourselves about the nature of Covid-19 so that we can protect ourselves and our communities, particularly seniors and those who are immunocompromised. However, I think that it is possible that many of us will succumb to some level of emotional exhaustion before the situation returns to normal in this country. Especially given the added stress that self-isolation imposes.

With so much information (and misinformation) out there from a variety of sources, one can become overwhelmed and inundated. We parse through the noise and are left with the apparent obligation to spend much of our days reading articles that are relevant to the global pandemic but are perhaps not essential to our daily lives. This can be dangerous. A person who experiences emotional exhaustion may tune out news for a few days or more which can leave them susceptible to missing critical instructions in this rapidly changing climate. It is simply not possible to absorb everything published on this topic, and that is okay. Indeed, the Canadian Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both suggest that exposure to news and social media should be limited if one is feeling anxious or stressed [7, 8]. Be kind to yourself and allow for some leniency.

My strategy for avoiding emotional exhaustion has been to continue to stay informed primarily through the CBC, Health Canada, and the daily briefings from PM Trudeau and to allow myself the option to pass on an article if it is not relevant or does not interest me. I let some articles slip through the cracks guilt-free because it is important that in prioritizing our physical health, we do not ignore our mental health in this stressful situation.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, please give yourself permission to take breaks from the media for extended periods of time each day. Give yourself permission to let some articles go unread. Give yourself permission to narrow the breadth of news outlets that you follow. There is no need to sprint.

It is encouraging to see the response from Canadians and their willingness to help give front line health care workers the best possible chance at controlling the outbreak. It is also encouraging to see Canadians engage in the public discourse and remain informed with quality evidence-based sources. If Canadians remain engaged and continue to follow the advice of experts, we will make it through this together and will be stronger for it.

[1] Cain, P., Hartshorn, M., "Canada is flattening the coronavirus curve. That’s ‘good news,’ expert explains" Global News, 17/04/2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/6826198/coronavirus-good-news-curve-canada-gr...
[2] Tuite, A., Fisman, D. N., Greer, A. L., Mathematical modeling of COVID-19 transmission and mitigation strategies in the population of Ontario, Canada, MedRχiν. (2020). doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.24.20042705
[3] Kirkey, Sharon. “Stopping COVID-19 could require eight months of 'aggressive social distancing,' outbreak modeling shows” National Post, 21/03/2020, https://nationalpost.com/health/could-the-covid-19-crisis-mean-well-be-s...
[4] Donnelly, Peter. “COVID-19 update: Trudeau addresses Canadians | Special coverage” CBC News, 03/04/2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBhTypl4wQo
[5] Carter, Adam. “COVID-19 could kill 3,000 to 15,000 people in Ontario, provincial modeling shows” CBC News, 03/04/2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-covid-projections-1.5519575
[6] Kissler, Stephen et al. Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the post-pandemic period. Science. (2020). DOI: 10.1126/science.abb5793
[7] “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Coping with and Preventing COVID-19” Canadian Psychological Association, 12/03/2020, https://cpa.ca/covid-19/
[8] “Stress and Coping” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23/03/2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-str...