Quarantine Fatigue Is Real

Instead of an all-or-nothing approach to risk prevention, we need a manual on how to have a life in a pandemic

#StayHome had its moment. We urgently needed to flatten the curve and buy time to scale up health-care capacity and testing. But quarantine fatigue is real. I’m talking about those who are experiencing the profound burden of extreme physical and social distancing.

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In addition to the economic hardship it causes, isolation can severely damage psychological well-being especially for people who were already depressed or anxious before the crisis started. In a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans said that the coronavirus pandemic has harmed their mental health.

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Meanwhile, most public health experts agree that a premature return to the old version of normalcy would be disastrous. States continue to lack the capacity for widespread coronavirus testing. A vaccine is months or even years away.

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But the choice between staying home indefinitely and returning to business as usual may be a false one. An all-or-nothing approach to disease prevention can have unintended consequences. Individuals may fixate on unlikely sources of virus transmission—the package in the mail, the runner or cyclist on the street.

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If for you these last few months stuck in coronavirus quarantine have felt a little weird, you’re not alone. For me, April seemed to take forever. Now, in May, I can’t remember what day it is half the time. I’m starting to feel like I’m enduring a perpetual time loop, reliving the same day over and over.

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But I’m not alone! Helen Rosner, a writer for The New Yorker, tweeted that her therapist described this weird time in our lives as “an infinite present” which feels pretty accurate. With no future plans, no anticipation of travel, or sports or summer festivals or celebrations, it’s an endless today, never tomorrow.

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There’s a name for this phenomenon: temporal disintegration, according to E. Alison Holman, PhD, a psychologist and an associate professor with the University California Irvine Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing. And, she says, they’re a direct result of trauma.

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“People lose track of time when the future is in question,” Dr. Holman told the University of California. “The continuity from the past to the future is gone. That’s what they are experiencing right now.”

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In a different interview with USA Today, Dr. Holman elaborated, “For people who are staying in all the time, the days meld in all together. There’s no distinction between the work week and weekend and you lose sense of time and what time it is.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has been thoroughly disrupting. Beyond creating a fear for our lives and livelihoods and the loss of our freedom to travel, it has obliterated any sense of schedule and structure we once had. What’s more, there’s no end in sight.

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All this destabilization and stress can create a sensation of “time dragging by,” Ruth Ogden, PhD, senior lecturer and researcher at the school of psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in England, also told USA Today.

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“This is because our sense of time is governed in part by the emotions that we experience and the actions we perform,” Dr. Ogden said. In normal life practically every hour has some sort of marker—now is when I run for the train, now is when I buy my afternoon coffee. Post-coronavirus, that’s all gone. It’s no wonder our sense of time has gone all wonky.

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For now, my sense of time remains shaken. But I’m slowly building a new schedule which is supposed to help: getting up at the same time each morning, getting dressed (I know), working in the yard every day. Slowly, I’ll build boundaries around my days that will allow me to stop asking myself terrifying questions like, “Is time real?” Yes, it’s real (?). Today is Friday. I think.

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Worth Pondering…

The place to live is in the here and now.