We’ve spent more than a month social distancing to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check. In North Carolina, it’s largely worked. Compared to our neighbors, we’ve seen fewer cases and fewer deaths, and the number of hospitalizations has stabilized. 

But this intense isolation doesn’t come without consequences. Research shows that it can make us lonely, depressed, and anxious. It cuts us off from our support systems. We retreat to our phones and televisions for information, but the constant feed of bad news only reinforces our distress. 

And if we freak out, chances are our kids will, too. 

Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has studied the psychological aftermath of mass tragedies for more than two decades. 

Nearly 60 percent of Americans watched the graphic footage of planes slamming into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Two months later, her studies showed, 17 people of the population outside of New York reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress. 

“We saw the role the media could play in transmitting trauma beyond the directly impacted communities,” she says.  

What’s different this time is that the coronavirus will leave no one untouched. COVID-19 has already killed more than 25 times the number of people who died on 9/11. Beyond that, more than 33 million people have filed for unemployment, and nearly the entire country found itself locked down throughout April, depriving high school and college students of graduation ceremonies and couples of wedding ceremonies. 

Like 9/11, COVID-19 could be a defining event for a generation. But in other ways, it’s not like 9/11 at all, Silver says. 

“The research that has been done thus far on large-scale collective trauma has been on events where there is a clear start and a clear end—the natural disaster is over or the mass violence has ended—and then we pick up the pieces and move forward and move beyond it,” she says. “But this is a very different kind of disaster because it’s slow-moving, and it appears to be escalating. We don’t know when the peak will be. Maybe it will wax and wane for some time. And because of that, it’s very difficult to project from our past research how things will look at the other side.”

Here’s what we do know: No one reacts to mass events in the same way. For some, this event triggers anxiety, while others experience chronic depression. Individuals who have already been diagnosed with anxiety disorders or depression are at greater risk, Silver says. A person’s circumstances, such as having a place to live or a steady job and quality support network, can also influence their ability to cope. 

Social isolation brought on by forced stay-at-home orders can trigger loneliness, which in turn can worsen or bring about other psychiatric conditions, ultimately leading to “despair” and “potentially self-destructive acts,” Mayo Clinic psychiatry professor Renato D. Alarcon writes in Psychiatric Times

Without intervention, ”a dramatic cascade effect can take place,” Alarcon writes. 

For children, the COVID lockdown has disrupted every part of their routine, cutting them off from friends at school and forcing them to adjust to learning from home. Their stress can manifest both psychologically and physically, says child psychologist Robin Gurwitch, a Duke University professor. 

Some kids may experience behavioral changes such as disruptions to sleep or difficulty focusing or paying attention. Even basic tasks like chores and homework may present hurdles. They may report headaches or stomach aches. Older children may experience mood swings or irritability. 

Parents shouldn’t view these changes as defiance, Gurwitch says. Rather, they’re symptoms of distress. 

She recommends that parents create new routines for their families, schedule virtual playdates, and have frank discussions with their kids about the coronavirus to dispel their fears and misconceptions. 

But the best thing parents can do is try to manage their own reactions and well-being. 

Even though things might seem bleak, Silver cautions against gloom. Human beings, she says, are quite resilient in the face of long odds. 

“We’ve seen that time and again after tragedies, and we know that people and communities are able to rebuild,” Silver says. 

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at ltauss@indyweek.com.

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