The psychology of why you go stir-crazy, and how to cope

Ken Zurek, a 63-year-old in Indiana, and his wife quarantined themselves after a trip to China.
Ken Zurek, a 63-year-old in Indiana, and his wife quarantined themselves after a trip to China.

Associated Press

  • Many people in the US are well into their second month of staying home almost all day, every day, due to restrictions aimed at controlling the novel coronavirus

  • While these practices save lives, they come with uncomfortable, even devastating, mental-health effects. 

  • Physically, they make people understandably restless too. 

  • Here’s the psychology and physiology of what happens to your body and brain when you’re quarantined, and how to cope. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

You’ll likely be in an “unpleasant state” after a period of social isolation, since humans thrive, and survive, on interaction.

friends coffee
friends coffee

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Humans don’t just like to be social, we need to be.

In fact, people who have weaker social relationships are 50% more likely to die over a given period than those with more robust connections, according to a 2015 meta-analysis including more than 308,000 people. 

Put another way, being lonely seems to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

That’s why depriving yourself of social connections, even temporarily, doesn’t feel good: Your body is trying to tell you to mingle so that, long-term, you stay alive.  

“If we think about loneliness as this adaptive response kind of like hunger and thirst, it’s this unpleasant state that motivates us to seek out social connections just like hunger motivates us to seek out food,” lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told Business Insider. 

Of course, she said, in a situation like a pandemic that requires you to reduce or eliminate your face-to-face contact, that discomfort needs to be endured to stave off more dangerous, immediate effects. 

 

 

 

The disruption of routine, including the activities that usually boost your mood, can also feel like an uncomfortable “jolt.”

Setting goals on calendar
Setting goals on calendar

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Not going to work, school, social events, or the gym means lacking “social rhythm reinforcers” and causing stress, 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, 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,” he said. 

Feeling frequently bored can also be a new, and uncomfortable, experience.

sad bored
sad bored

Luke MacGregor/REUTERS

If, like many Americans, you’re used to being busy — often, too busy — the boredom of quarantine can also be a new, and depleting, experience. 

While boredom is a normal and even healthy human state, people who experience it more often experiencing it more often tend to have more anxiety and are more prone to depression, research has shown

Fortunately, the study authors found, how you react to boring situations makes all the difference in how distressing it is. Experts recommend keeping or creating some routine, including perhaps new hobbies, to help while away the time. 

The effects of not physically moving as much can mess with your mind, too.

working from home stressed
working from home stressed

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Whether you’re confined to a room because you’ve been exposed to the virus or simply working from home because your office or jurisdiction requires it, this reduction in physical activity can affect your mind.

Look to injured athletes for an extreme example. Athletes may experience “emotional upheaval” when they’re injured, in large part because they no longer have the coping mechanism that may have kept these feelings at bay. 

That may manifest as sadness, irritation, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions.

 

 

Reducing or virtually eliminating your physical activity can also cause your muscles to atrophy.

negative effects of watching tv
negative effects of watching tv

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“Use it or lose it” is a cliche for a reason: It’s true. 

A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that just two weeks of inactivity can begin to negate gains to your heart and muscle mass, according to US News & World Report

Another study found that obese adults who worked out for four months and then took a month off lost most of the improvements to their aerobic capacity, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol.

While elite performance coach and human movement specialist Luke Worthington told Insider’s Rachel Hosie “strength and aerobic conditioning are actually pretty resilient,” he did admit that after about four weeks of inactivity, you’ll start to soften. 

The effects of a quarantine can be psychologically damaging in the long term.

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. Only two years ago e-cigarettes were viewed as holding great potential for public health: offering a way to wean smokers off traditional cigarettes. But now Juul and other vaping companies face an escalating backlash that threatens to sweep their products off the market. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. Only two years ago e-cigarettes were viewed as holding great potential for public health: offering a way to wean smokers off traditional cigarettes. But now Juul and other vaping companies face an escalating backlash that threatens to sweep their products off the market. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Associated Press

According to February research in the Lancet that included 24 previous studies on the psychological effects of quarantines during disease outbreaks, the experience can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, confusion, anger, fear, and substance misuse.

The most vulnerable people, the study authors said, are those who have or have had mental health issues. 

More recent research suggests these negative effects are playing out in the current pandemic, with 55% of respondents in a survey by the Benenson Strategy Group saying the coronavirus has affected their mental health.

Many mental health professionals have warned the isolation will lead to a serious mental-health crisis, skyrocketing depression rates, and even increases in suicide. 

Of course, how severe the effects are depend on your situation, personality, and history.

reading book
reading book

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How affected you are by a period of social isolation, or just reduced physical interactions, is also influenced by your personality. 

“If you’re a massive extrovert who thrives on social contact” the experience is going to hit harder “than if you’re an introvert who’s very comfortable curling up on a couch with a book,” psychologist Dr. Sherry Benton told Business Insider. 

 

To help ease stay-at-home restlessness, take a solo walk or run or try some at-home workout plans.

jump rope home exercise
jump rope home exercise

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Even in jurisdictions with “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders encourage residents who are healthy to get outside for the occasional walk or run. Just do so alone, don’t linger, and keep your distance from others. 

“I don’t need to quote a study to let you know that if you’ve been inside all day, a little time outdoors will improve your mood,” Dr. Jedidiah Ballard, an emergency-medicine physician, told Insider. “Vitamin D also plays a role in immune function, and sunlight is needed for our bodies to convert it to its active form.”

If you must or prefer to stay home, all you really need is your body to do pushups, squats, lunges, crunches, and burpees. A chair too can serve as a bench for tricep dips. 

If you have a resistance band, you can work even more variety into your at-home exercise plan. Try squats or “fast feet” — squatting low and stepping quickly in place — with the band around your legs above your knees to create tension and build power.

 

Try to eat healthy to help fend off feeling too sluggish.

canned beans grocery store
canned beans grocery store

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Alyssa Pike, registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, previously told Insider you don’t have to rely on soup and saltines for weeks straight. 

Rather, stock up on canned and frozen vegetables, grains like rice and pasta, and try some uncomplicated but nutrient-rich recipes like pasta salads and vegetarian chilis. 

Make sure you have a can opener. 

Eating a healthy and nutritious diet, WHO’s director-general said, “helps your immune system to function properly.” He also recommended limiting alcohol and sugary drink consumption, and not smoking. 

 

 

To mentally and emotionally cope with a quarantine or reduced social contact, virtually reach out to others.

phone call
phone call

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Being quarantined today is less socially straining than just a decade ago.

Tools like FaceTime and Skype “may help relieve some of those short-term unpleasant responses to help us still feel and maintain those connections without potentially putting ourselves at risk of being exposed to the virus,” Holt-Lunstad said. 

She recommended being proactive about reaching out to others and asking how they’re doing — you’ll boost your mental health as well as theirs, since they’ll at least experience the perception of support, which research shows can reduce stress

Holt-Lunstad added that the silver lining to something like a directive to stay home is the ability to slow down and connect with the people closest to us.

“When you’re having people still express love and support in a variety of ways, it can make those periods of relative confinement more bearable,” she said. 

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