Effects of isolation

I’ve been trying to pay attention to my emotions as we go through this period of physical isolation and separation that is a part of our attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. I haven’t experienced depression, which I know is common among some of those who are isolated. To be honest, I am not really isolated. I go to work every day. It is just that the building where I work is empty. we see a few people, from a safe distance. I shop for groceries once a week, early in the morning to avoid crowds. And I am in constant contact with people through social media, video conferencing and other technologies. I find that I do have some days when I am less efficient with my work. I am frequently more tired than I think I should be. And I think that I am doing a bit more complaining than usual. When I go back through my journal entries, they are a bit more whiny than usual. And I am always interested in how other people are doing, so I ask quite a bit. Some folks are ready to give me the details. Not only am I talking on the phone more than usual, individual phone calls are lasting longer than was the case before the pandemic forced us to stay away from others.

Looking at the Internet for articles about psychological health during pandemic isolation, I came across an article about a medical researcher who is conducting focused research on the topic. Dr. Pradeep Tomar is a medial doctor from India who is five months into a year-long research project on the psychological effects of isolation. He is conducting his work in Antartica, based at India’s Bharati base. Antartica is one of the most remote locations in the world, roughly 3,000 miles from the tip of South America, the nearest mainland. Researchers are the only humans who live in Antartica and aside from a short number who arrive in November and leave in March, spending only the summer there, most people are there on one-year assignments. Some Antarctic bases have airports, but India’s base has only access by boat during the summer.

So, even before the pandemic, it was a good place to study how people live in isolation. Everyone in Antartica works from home. The weather outside, even in the height of summer, is brutal. Many dwellings are made from shipping containers. There is little contact with people from other research stations.

Although there have been no diagnosed cases of coronavirus on Antartica, research stations are taking precautions. People traveling to Antartica are quarantined for 14 days before departure and an additional 14 days after arrival. Were anyone to demonstrate Covid-19 symptoms, thy would need to be immediately isolated. The options for medical treatment in the remote location are extremely limited. As a precaution, visits between different world research teams, situated on different bases, have been banned since February. That means that Dr. Tomar’s research is limited to the 22 other people on his base.

In addition to the social isolation, Antartica is entering into winter, when days are very short. There will be times when the sun doesn’t rise at all in the depths of winter. The lack of natural light can be a contributing factor to depression for some people. Although researchers are screened for any sings of seasonal affective disorder before being deployed to Antarctic bases, it is a tough job where there are many dangers to health. In addition to the psychological risks, the inhospitable environment poses a constant threat. Just going outside is risking death from falling into a crevasse or exposure to wind and cold.

Now those who are engaged in research on the continent have the added stress of worrying about family and friends back home. They have access to the Internet and regular contact with family by video conferencing, but as we are all learning, those media are not the same as being face to face. It is difficult to read the faces of loved ones when they appear on a computer screen. Seeing them is better than no contact, but there are limits. You can’t hug a monitor, or if you did, it isn’t like hugging a person.

Dr. Tomar is scheduled to remain at the Antarctic base until November, so he has six more months to conduct his studies. After he returns, it will be some time before he will have edited and prepared his data for publication. And when it does appear, depending on the journal in which it is published, it may be months before it is available in English. By the time his findings are available, I may well have moved on in terms of my interest. Things are changing so rapidly that I can’t predict what I will be interested in reading a couple of years from now. And studies conducted in the Antarctic might have little bearing on the kind of isolation that is being experienced by people who are in self-isolation or mandated isolation because of there virus. As fascinating as is the doctor’s work, it probably isn’t relevant.

I guess we are all conducting a bit of psychological research by living our lives the way we are learning to live them. We’ve learned to carry our masks and wear them in some contexts, but I’ve noticed that there are plenty of times when I have my mask removed. I don’t wear it constantly every moment that I am outside of my home. In my travels around town, I’ve observed that people seem to be more conscious about physical distancing in some settings than they are in others. Other than cough shields for checkers, not much has changed at the hardware store.

The people who seem to have the most struggles and with whom I’m spending a lot of time over the phone are those who seem to be most isolated. We have church members who are not going outside of their homes at all. They have groceries delivered and order other items from the internet and remain in their homes at all times. It must be both lonely and occasionally boring. Even with plenty of books to read and hobbies to pursue it must be a real challenge.

We keep checking in with each other. Maintaining physical health and avoiding the virus is only part of the struggle. We also need to maintain psychological health and keep depression at bay. You can isolate yourself form other people. You can keep your house sanitized and clean. But you can’t avoid your own feelings. Stay healthy. practice distancing. wash your hands. And, dear friends, take care of your spirit as well. Play, laugh, reach out to others in ways that are safe.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!