By Emily Carmichael, guest columnist
A week and a half into quarantine with COVID-19, I was shaking. I piled a blanket on top of myself and rocked side to side, occasionally moaning, nestling ever deeper into the joints of my couch. My heart felt like it was racing, my head pounded.
Yes, according to my doctor, I most likely was infected with the coronavirus, but that’s not what was causing this. It had been 10 days since I was within 8 feet of another person, and I was having an anxiety attack.
I’m not bad at being alone. After I graduated in 2018, I spent five months solo traveling through South Asia. Out of the past 15 months, I’ve lived by myself for 10 of them, as I do now. I fancy myself a writer, a person who creates by running lonely laps around her own mind. Being alone, for me, is often rejuvenating.
Quarantine is different. Quarantine, especially for those who are infected or for those who live alone, is a necessary but unnatural isolation.
Humans are a tribal species. We are meant to survive in a pack, and to be separated from that pack is, evolutionarily speaking, deeply disturbing. It makes sense. To find ourselves camping alone or walking through an open field unaccompanied makes us vulnerable. If we are stricken by a predator or a bout of illness, there is nobody to help us survive. It’s wise of our minds to hate prolonged isolation.
Indeed, there are studies demonstrating that the sturdiness of our biology depends on togetherness. The Harvard Adult Development study followed teenage boys from 1938 until death. It found that one of the strongest influence on their health was the strength of their relationships.
The Bucharest Children’s Study, which Tulane University helped lead, examined the trajectory of children in orphanages who were minimally touched or interacted with. The researchers found this lack of touch and interaction could cause developmental delays, trouble with emotional regulation and difficulty forming relationships later in life.
Moreover, a literature review led by Naomi Eisenberg of the University of California Los Angeles found when our bodies experience inflammation, an immune response, positive social interactions feel more rewarding in our brains. Likewise, that same review found loneliness can increase inflammation. The authors speculate our brains encourage togetherness because togetherness encourages healing.
In what is now commonly referred to as this “unprecedented time,” the time of the coronavirus pandemic, survival depends on separation. We must keep our distance for the love of our neighbors, our city, our friends and country — but the biological drive to cluster and to hold each other remains.
For me, and I suspect for many others, this is a counter-intuitive, disorienting experience.
Chief among my tools to combat anxiety is friendship: to feel a friend fall into my shoulder as we laugh together or the basic act of a hug. Without it, it’s as if I have lost a physical buffer for my spiraling thoughts. And with each day’s news, they’re spiraling.
My days feel less grounded in a meaningful reality; the world feels less real. I spend an inordinate amount of time on social media and video chatting, a poor excuse for a congenial bar or a friend’s living room couch. I am nervous more often than I am used to. The coronavirus symptoms — the headaches, nausea and shortness of breath — do nothing to help.
What I am experiencing is far from the worst of it. There are families who cannot see their COVID-19 stricken love ones in the hospital and patients fighting for their lives on hospital beds alone. If these loved ones succumb to the illness, nobody has the chance for a last kiss on the forehead.
Of course, so that fewer families feel the trauma of this separation and loss, we must stay apart. Yes, it is hard, but there is recourse.
A weighted blanket can be used to stimulate the feeling of physical touch. I have been using one to soothe my anxiety for months, and have found it particularly useful during isolation. There is also the practice of self massage. You can read Buzzfeed tips on how to do it here.
For those who feel they need support in this time of quarantine and don’t know how to seek it, there are hotlines. The CDC has one for those in distress from a disaster at 800-985-5990. If you have a therapist or a friend who will listen, reach out.
Finally, there is the solace that the stronger our commitment to social distancing the sooner it will be over. Lovingly encourage those in your circle to practice it. It’s a weird facet of loneliness that it tricks us into thinking that we are the only ones feeling it. This loneliness is communal.
Freelance writer Emily Carmichael is a frequent contributor to NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.