The Psychological Effects of Isolation, Quarantine and Social Distancing

“When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do”- Rachel Naomi Remen

On Sunday March 15th, 2020 Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, called on Ottawans to strengthen social distancing measures and to “not go out for non-essential reasons” in order to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus within our community. This announcement came on the heels of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s disclosure, three days earlier, that he and his family would self-isolate for fourteen days following his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau’s positive testing for COVID-19 after she returned home from London, England.

Since COVID-19’s December 2019 outbreak in Wuhan, China, many countries who have had individuals come into contact with the virus isolate themselves either at home or in a quarantine facility. Additionally, many of us following the directives of Ottawa Public Health are practicing social distancing in order to curb the spread of infection to the most vulnerable in our population, as well as to reduce the burden on our medical systems.

Whether someone is placed in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, quarantined as a precaution after returning home from abroad, or practicing social distancing as a protective measure for themselves, their families, and their community, it is clear that we are all being called upon to live differently more than ever before. Yet, what are the effects of being under isolation, quarantine, and/or prolonged social distancing, and how can we use the knowledge of these effects to our advantage?

First, we must remember that the terms ‘isolation’, ‘quarantine’, and ‘social distancing’ mean different things. Despite these words being used more frequently, and sometimes interchangeably, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) notes that isolation and quarantine are separate measures used to help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have, or may have, a contagious disease. Social distancing is a public health directive towards those who do not have a disease.

The CDC defines isolation as the separation of ill people with a communicable disease from people who are healthy. In this case, those individuals who test positive for COVID-19 become isolated. Conversely, to quarantine is to separate and restrict the movement of well persons to limit the spread of a communicable disease. Anyone returning to Canada from abroad for example is being placed under a fourteen day self-quarantine at home. While these individuals may be asymptomatic, they pose a greater risk of passing the virus to others should they openly engage in the community without being quarantined. Finally, social distancing, what most of us are being called to do from the directive given by Ottawa Public Health, is the practice of deliberately increasing the space between people to avoid the spreading of an illness.

The stresses faced while being under any one of these scenarios are undoubtedly tough. While not exhaustive, they may include:

  • Worries over the duration of the isolation, quarantine, or the practice of social distancing;
  • Stress over being separated from loved ones;
  • Stress from overexposure to loved ones;
  • Feelings of sadness;
  • Feeling a loss of freedom due to the absence of public life;
  • Feelings of fear or uncertainty, both generally, and more specifically related to becoming infected with, or spreading, the virus;
  • Food insecurities and worries over not having one’s basic needs met;
  • Concerns over pre-existing medical conditions;
  • Financial worries;
  • Boredom.

The cumulative effect of these stressors may seem sizable enough. However, these stressors combined with our 24-hour news cycle can create heightened feelings of anxiety and exhaustion during the pandemic.

Therefore, to best support our mental health during these challenging times, for some this will mean limiting media exposure. Limiting media exposure does not mean becoming uninformed of what is going on around us, but rather choosing to halt the constant flow of news that we take in. This can be done by focusing solely on remaining updated and following the directives of Ottawa Public Health and shutting the rest off.

As we know that we make our best decisions when we are in a peaceful and relaxed state, it will be important to engage in activities that promote this as much as possible while under quarantine or social distancing. These activities may look different for different people. For some it may be exercising at home. For others it may be reading. Still for others, it might be painting.

Having much more time on our hands, it is important to maintain proper sleep hygiene and a balanced diet as best we can, as these elements are crucial for optimum functioning in times of great stress.

Finally, for all of us practicing social distancing, as per directives from Ottawa Public Health, we must remember that we are a species that thrives and survives because of our connection and inter-dependence to one another. To curb the spread of the virus we are being called to physically separate from one another. This does not mean we should emotionally separate. Our emotional connections that make us feel loved and supported, as well as the love and support we give to others, is what will allow us to continue to physically separate until we reach a time when we are no longer required to do so.


Jesse Henneberry is a registered psychotherapist working with The Counselling Group. He supports his clients from various modalities and specializes in Narrative therapy as well as single session therapy. 

Looking for counselling? The Counselling Group offers a variety of experienced counsellors who can support positive changes and growth in your life. For more information, please call 613-722-2225 x352 to speak with an intake worker today. We are offering appointments remotely at this time and are available to speak with you for new requests.