How long periods of isolation impact mental health and how nature can help


Featured photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

Sharmila Kuthunur

The view from my Boston apartment’s balcony is calming – a vast stretch of trees as far as the eye can see. Before the pandemic, the hustle of daily life left me with little to no time to appreciate it. By the time I attended my classes during the day and caught up with family in the evenings, I was too exhausted to do much else. However, since the coronavirus pandemic turned my days upside down, I’ve been tucked inside my apartment 24/7 with little reprieve from monotonously “working from home.” Six months into self-isolating from the outside world, I find myself venturing out onto the balcony more frequently, where the sound of birds chirping and the sight of squirrels scuttling have become a welcome distraction from the walls of my bedroom.

The view from the apartment
Picture Credits: Sharmila Kuthunur

Being an international student far from home, there are times when I feel homesick. As an international student, latching on to a calm mind is especially important, since the distance from home might lead to an even stronger feeling of homesickness. When I view and embrace greenery, I always experience a surge of positive emotions. What is it about isolation that harms our health, how can we better deal with it and how does nature play into all this? 

Isolation as a chronic stressor

We are social creatures who thrive when we “feel” connected to other human beings. There is evidence that people who take part in meaningful activities and productive experiences feel a sense of purpose and well-being. As Desiree Dickerson, a clinical psychologist in Spain specializing in academic mental health and well-being, explains, prolonged isolation similar to the one occurring because of the pandemic is harmful. 

“It is a death sentence as far as our evolutionary wiring is concerned – back in the day if we were isolated we’d either be eaten or we’d starve,” Dickerson told GO, via email. “We are wired for social connection and belonging. And when those needs aren’t met, we see increased psychological distress, anxiety and depression and a raft of other health issues.”

Humans have a specific set of social behaviors and needs, and the ways in which we cope with the toll on mental health during this pandemic depends on our individual spectrum. 

“Each of us come to this experience with different coping mechanisms, some more or less effective than others, each of our day to day stressors and triggers are going to look and feel different,” says Dickerson.

The toll on productivity

The daily routine that I had laboriously set up was one of the first things to be impacted by the sudden lockdown. Previously, my days were defined by a clear-cut routine: classes, work and chores. Throughout the week, I left my house to go to campus for classes and then I came home in the evening to cook and relax. Weekends were reserved for leisure at home or catching up with loved ones over phone calls. Post-lockdown life has been quite different. Weekdays and weekends bleed into each other, and I often lose track of the days.

“We have habits around health behaviours (exercise, sleep, diet, for example),  and we have habits around productivity – when and where we work best, where we concentrate best, how distracted we are and can become,” said Dickerson. “Without our usual tethers to these routines and habits, our productivity has taken a beating from many angles. We don’t engage in our usual exercise, sleep patterns, or diet – then our cognitive capacity for useful or meaningful work will be severely disrupted.

Staying at home all day has also resulted in dullness, not to mention the innumerable hours gobbled up by social media. This results in a toxic feedback loop, since I try to engage in social media to relax and get away from pandemic-related thoughts. But social media itself is full of COVID-19 updates, making my attempt counterproductive. Is this a natural consequence of the pandemic? “Difficulty concentrating, low motivation, and distractibility are completely reasonable and healthy responses right now,” says Dickerson. “Do not underestimate the amount of cognitive bandwidth that this pandemic is eating up. Nor the considerable emotional drain that it continues to represent. Your attention is rightly being drawn to the pandemic at your door. So try and go easy on yourself.

The light at the end of the tunnel

This pandemic has taken up six months of 2020 and it is likely to take up some more. It is often hard to maintain a positive mindset and get work done when there is so much chaos in the world outside. 

A potential solution: start small and build up from there. 

“Expecting life as normal and setting unreachable goals and timeframes will only exacerbate your stress – so start small,” said Dickerson. “Look back over your work patterns of the last few months since this crisis began and ask yourself, ‘what is reasonable right now?’ What is your new normal? Set your to-do list accordingly. A sense of achievement, however small, is motivating and will help your overall productivity.”

While we do not know how long the pandemic will last, what we can do is create new routines that encourage us to get work done without increasing the pressure. In addition to boosting productivity, these routines take our minds off the outside world, even if just for a little while. 

“For me, my first coffee of the day is a meditative process. It signals the start of my working day,” said Dickerson. “Its preparation allows me to change ‘hats’ from parenting mode to working mode. With that coffee I begin my workday and my most productive, and therefore most protected, few hours of my day. You can use any stimuli, process, or space in the same way. It is about setting the intention, I suppose, and then following through.”

Nature as an underappreciated resource

As mentioned above, the pandemic has driven me to my balcony more frequently than during the pre-pandemic hustle. The greenery right outside my apartment not only serves as a relaxing escape from work, but also often serves as a mood booster. 

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that exposure to nature is beneficial for our physical and mental health,” said Dickerson. “It improves mood, reduces anger and stress, and increases happiness.

In fact, we don’t need acres of greenery for it to be effective. “There is even evidence for the benefits of a simple pot plant in your office and in hospital rooms,” says Dickerson.

The pandemic has undoubtedly slowed our lives, forcing us to live within four walls as much as possible. During these tough times, routines will help us to focus on what can be done and what is in our control and take our focus away from the world’s chaos. Moreover, nature can help bring calmness and positivity to our days, which in turn will help us focus on our tasks. 

The pandemic isn’t over yet and it is out of our control for the most part, but we can try and determine how we react to it.