Someone gave it a name: Quarantine Fatigue. It’s not a diagnosis, but it surely does label what many people are feeling now that we’re 7 – 8 weeks in with stay at home guidelines/orders. People are by nature social creatures. We desire connection. We thrive on relationships. We need to be with other humans to be human. There are even studies that show that people would rather experience physical pain than loneliness.
Quarantine Fatigue speaks to our difficulty maintaining the limits on up front and personal, 3-dimensional contact with our fellow human beings. The result for many people is irritability, restlessness, general crankiness, and even physical exhaustion. It mimics depression in many ways and could be misunderstood as the onset of a mental health disorder, rather than a normal response to an abnormal situation.
Some people are responding to their anxieties with anger and defiance. They want the stay at home orders lifted! They swarm beaches and parks. They refuse to wear a mask. They claim that their protests are about the restraints on individual freedom, putting a political cover on a decidedly non-political issue. The issue, really, is not about rights. The issue is the extent to which we believe we are our “brother’s (and sister’s, neighbor’s, family’s, and friends’) keeper.”
According to Alfred Adler, early 20th psychologist who was both a colleague and an irritant to Freud, the measure of mental health is Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Roughly translated, it means “social interest” or feeling of community with others. By his measure, those who refuse to wear masks, who insist on congregating, who refuse to take steps to keep others safe, are at risk for mental illness. Those who are most concerned about others and who actively work to make their community healthy and happy are the most mentally healthy.
The COVID-19 epidemic is challenging our Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Staying focused on the greater good instead of just relieving our own discomfort is hard, really hard. Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo speaks eloquently of this regularly in his daily updates.
Being home is not about you as an individual. It’s about protecting everyone else. That means being inconvenienced. It means changing our daily routines. It means wearing masks and keeping our distance. It means finding other ways to stay connected with our community besides being in each other’s physical company.
Quarantine fatigue is real. But the solution isn’t defiance of social distancing. Participating in angry demonstrations demanding the right to infect others may give those who do it the high of an adrenaline boost, but it ultimately is self-destructive. Contributing to the spread of the disease and the deaths of others will only result in regret and survival guilt or hollow self-justification. Self-esteem based on negativity and fear leads to depression and more anxiety. In contrast, doing things that help keep everyone safe broadens and builds positive self-esteem.
How to Manage Quarantine Fatigue
There is no cure as yet for COVID-19. But there is a “cure” for Quarantine Fatigue. What Alfred Adler called Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a personal commitment to Social Responsibility. Being socially responsible means staying informed and connected in ways that contribute to the greater good.
- Affirm or shift your thinking from “Me” to “We.” Survival as a people, as a community, and as a country requires giving up the idea that freedom is doing what we want when we want. Survival calls for Gemeinschaftsgefühl: For us to be our best selves, looking after the other guy as well as ourselves. Those who thrive, not just survive; those who live longer and feel more fulfilled, do exactly that.
- Resist the pull of conspiracy theories: Those who make mockumentaries and manipulate our fears and restlessness by posting conspiracy theories on social media thrive on creating a “us vs. them” mentality. They pray on our financial fears and anxieties about the future. Often, they are invested in pursuing a political or social agenda, regardless of how many people will die because of it. Recognize them for what they are and refuse to fall for their manipulations.
- Stay informed: Listen to the real experts who have been quietly working on infectious disease control for years. Science and facts help us make the decisions needed to ensure that fewer people will suffer and die.
- Stay home: If your circumstances allow you to stay home, get comfortable with being uncomfortable (maybe very uncomfortable) until the numbers are more promising. There are other articles here at Psych Central and on other sites that offer ideas for being socially connected while maintaining physical distance.
- Practice safety: Wearing a mask or gloves may be uncomfortable. Keeping your distance when talking to others may be awkward. Washing your hands 20 times a day may be inconvenient. But all these measures are for everyone’s good. If you can’t do them for yourself, do them for the people you love. If everyone obeys these simple strategies, the disease has less opportunity to spread.
- Don’t isolate. Communicate: Time on your hands means you aren’t using enough of your time to be in community with others. Make at least one call to a friend or loved one a day. Send letters and emails. Participate in online social groups like book clubs or interest groups. You will benefit and so will the people you talk to.
- Help those who are financially suffering the most: Donate what you can to service organizations like food banks and survival centers. Send people whose services you used to use regularly a thank you check. Tip food delivery people generously. If everyone does a little, it adds up to a lot.
- Volunteer: Multiple studies show that people who do good for others are happier and live longer. Use your creativity and imagination to find ways to be of use during this difficult time. Get busy. Make masks for others. Join a call circle for elderly and disabled people who need to know someone cares. Volunteer to tutor or read to kids you know so their parents can get a break. Join online committees to further the agenda of organizations that are trying to preserve and expand the social safety net.
The crisis created by COVID-19 brings out the best and the worst in people. The antidote to despair and the way to stay mentally healthy and enhance self-esteem is to tap into the best in ourselves. Alfred Adler was right. Ultimately, it is by each of us acting for the good of the many in whatever ways we can that will get us through.