How to stay safe and sane during coronavirus isolation, according to science

People who suspect they may have come into contact with the coronavirus are being advised to self-isolate (stay at home) for 14 days. For some people, the idea of self-isolation may seem like a dream come true. For others, the idea of being cut off from the outside world, alone, or with only a few close family members, will fill them with dread – ask any parent who has had to entertain two small children at home on a wet afternoon.

When people are stuck indoors for long periods of time, they can report getting “cabin fever” or feel like they are going “stir crazy.” Observations from actual or simulated space missions or people living in confined spaces, such as those spending a winter on polar stations, also suggest that some people may find self-isolating more difficult than others. However, there are some simple measures that you can take to help you adapt.

1. Boost your immune system

Research on the effects of loneliness suggests that when people lack social connections they are more likely to suffer from physical health problems. For example, older adults who can’t leave their homes due to impaired mobility are more susceptible to illness, such as heart disease. And studies have found that polar research crews can suffer from reductions in their immune system.

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The good news is that the period of self-isolation needed for coronavirus should not result in any marked changes in how your immune system works. But during self-isolation, it may be a good idea to try to improve your immune response. Exercise and getting enough vitamins can help here (although contrary to some internet sources, they’re not a cure). Psychologists also believe that listening to upbeat music or watching a movie can also boost your immune function.

2. Structure your day

For some people, self-isolation might still lead to some mild mental health issues. We know from people who have spent a winter in a polar research station that longer-term isolation and confinement are linked to psychological problems. One study found that in crews over-wintering, over 60% reported feeling depressed or anxious; and nearly 50% felt more irritable and had problems with memory, sleeping, and concentrating.

Obviously, coronavirus self-isolation won’t be as extreme or as long as for those exposed to an Arctic winter and so the impact on mental wellbeing is likely to be much less extreme. But some people who are self-isolating may have difficulties with sleep (insomnia), feelings of restlessness or sadness, or start to feel demotivated.

To combat these problems, it is important to maintain a structure to your day. Having a set schedule for meal times and a set bedtime can help you to stay on track. Planning out activities and setting goals can also help keep you motivated and stop you from feeling down.