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Coronavirus Quarantines: What It Means To Face Trauma In A Household of One

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to psychiatrist and loneliness expert Sue Varma about coping while self-isolating.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Cabin fever may be setting in during this pandemic quarantine – families in each other’s faces all day long, children and spouses driving each other crazy. But how are single people and those living alone coping with the quarantine? Dr. Sue Varma is a psychiatrist and has studied the impact of trauma and loneliness. We’ve reached her in New York. Welcome to the program.

SUE VARMA: Hi. Thank you, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much for joining us. What happens to people psychologically when they’re lonely?

VARMA: When people are lonely, they start to feel anxious, and their brain creates a lot of noise about the interpretations of the situation. I have patients that I’m working with that are single and are really blaming themselves. They’re getting down on themselves. They’re being hard on themselves. And they’re wondering why they hadn’t, you know, been with a partner by now. And I feel that when we’re in a quarantine situation, you don’t have the necessary distractions. You don’t have the necessary support. And sort of negative pessimistic thoughts might be creeping in more so than usual.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This pandemic is a traumatic event for many people. What are you hearing from single patients and those living alone about how they’re experiencing loneliness at this time versus, let’s say, pre-coronavirus?

VARMA: All of us on a day-to-day level will feel stress and anxiety, but we have the outside world to interact with. And we have what I call microconnections. So think of the person at your coffee shop, the barista, the server at your local diner or just your co-workers. All of these allow for opportunities for connection, for distraction. And they’re soothing to the brain. My concern as a psychiatrist who’s worked with trauma in the past – I was the former medical director of the 9/11 mental health program. What I’m seeing is that anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder are on the rise. When you add in uncertainty about employment, loss of employment, health concerns for yourself, other family members getting sick, not being able to grieve that, all of this is going to increase our risk for trauma. One thing that I’m seeing is that a lot of people are missing the opportunity for physical touch, whether it was in the context of, you know, a parent relationship or friend, dating, even casual encounters, sexual encounters – whatever it might be. And my concern is that more people are going to be experiencing distress. And I think it’s really important for us to be vigilant in terms of, when is something a normal stress reaction? – and when it becomes pathological.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that you were the founding medical director of the World Trade Center Medical Health Program at New York University. Do you consider this pandemic event more traumatic or traumatizing in a different way? I mean, how does it compare? Can it compare?

VARMA: Yes. You know, I think that the true effects still remain to be seen because I think we’re very much still in the thick of things. But I can already tell you that what makes this pandemic so different from 9/11 is the fact that we don’t have an endpoint and we don’t have the same outlets to come together to heal, to grieve, to mourn. I mean, when you look at any disaster whether it be Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy, the tsunami, you have pictures of people hugging each other. You have pictures of people getting together, and we don’t have that anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’re talking about adults, mostly, who are alone. But what about only children? It’s hard for kids not to be with other kids for long periods of time, right?

VARMA: Sure. It is. But I have to say being a parent, myself, I am incredibly impressed with the resilience of children. And some of it has to do with the fact that they don’t have all the noise in their heads that we have as adults because we’ve lived through so much. And we then tend to project into the future. They also don’t have the ability to put words on how they’re feeling, and that can also be a little bit dangerous. And so we really have to be able to provide structure for kids, reassure them in whatever way possible, give them open-ended neutral conversations to say well, what is bothering you? But I like the fact that kids don’t have the years of experience and the years of sort of opportunity for negative spin on events the way adults do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you tell people who are self-isolating alone? What should they be doing?

VARMA: So I think it’s so important to do a few things. I call them the four M’s of mental health. Mindfulness. If you have 10 minutes, do one of the many apps that are available – Calm, Headspace – or just deep breathing. Movement is really important. Ten or 15 minutes either at home and exercising, squats, lunges, pushups, anything you’re capable of doing, even stretching, any gentle yoga. Getting outside, if you’re allowed to, while maintaining social distancing. Mastery – anything creative. And I don’t mean productive necessarily because we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves right now. I need to write my novel. You know, I need to start my business. No, this is – no, there’s no pressure of that sort – cooking, rearranging your closet, writing a blog – if it moves you, whatever makes you feel happy and contented. And lastly, meaningful connection with other people and offering help to people can be very beneficial. We find that when altruism is actually one of the keys to resilience after trauma helping other people it benefits both the giver and the receiver.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Dr. Sue Varma. She is a psychiatrist and has studied the impact of trauma and loneliness. And she’s in New York.

Thank you very much.

VARMA: Thank you.

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