A shaky return from quarantine
Recently, I have been taking time to reflect on my quarantine experience and just how much the entire pandemic has changed me. It has been almost a year since the University of Michigan’s campus closed and I moved home, where I spent most of my summer socially isolated and alone. While I am now back on campus and able to see a small group of friends, life has remained primarily confined to my bedroom where I sleep, eat, study and relax.
Over quarantine, I developed a number of new habits to keep myself occupied and living with purpose. With so little control over social life or any outside factors, focusing on little things about myself that I could work toward was my way of staying sane. This list included working out daily, eating healthy, staying on top of all my work and creating a to-do list that I actually stuck to every day.
My new habits gave me a feeling of purpose and routine. To be fair, I was successful. Overall, I handled the quarantine well and stayed in relatively positive spirits. I got in the best shape of my life, got good grades and became a smoothie-making master.
However, in transitioning back to a college environment, the habits that once saved me have become my downfall. In returning to campus, clubs, classes, jobs and spending time with friends quickly took over my life and allowed for almost no downtime. New opportunities, challenges and commitments arise daily that make sticking to a rigid schedule nearly impossible. College life, in this way, is the complete opposite of my over-the-summer quarantine where there was a plethora of free time and little change from day to day.
It has become extremely difficult to stick to my new habits and retain control over them. I grew to rely on being fit and healthy as my source of self-confidence and happiness. In attempting to stick to all of my new habits, I find myself sacrificing the ability to relax and have fun. On the other hand, losing control over these elements of my life now only leaves me feeling more stressed and anxious. And while it may personally feel like I am alone in this battle, others are experiencing their own similar struggles with transitioning out of quarantine and back to a college environment.
LSA sophomore Hannah Shipley said that in quarantine, she “developed a very synonymous daily routine with the same rotation of meals, same workouts and the same overall schedule. … Coming back to Michigan, (she) felt extremely disorganized and anxious about the uncertainty of everything surrounding COVID-19.”
The transition from normal life to quarantine, social distancing and the general stress of a pandemic was a challenge no one saw coming. There has been a lot of research surrounding the impacts of going into quarantine and social isolation. However, the mental health impacts of leaving quarantine and returning to limited socialization seem to have been much less reported on.
Shipley added: “Everyone has different opinions and definitions of balancing a social life with being COVID conscious. These tensions and social anxieties will continue to impact people’s mental health for a long time.”
Quarantine, while necessary for public health, has long-term psychological effects and causes or worsens mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many mental health issues are caused by a mixture of environmental and genetic factors and, because quarantine is such a dramatic change of environment, it can easily exacerbate and intensify mental health challenges.
I am still a supporter of healthy habits and routine, especially while quarantine and social distancing are still components of life — both things that are necessary for public health but make finding purpose and control incredibly difficult. However, it is important to be wary of whether these habits are relieving stress or if they have turned into a possibly obsessive source of control. Being easier on yourself and making your habits and routines less rigid are adaptations that are helping me find the balance between mental health, college life and still enjoying the habits that helped me survive quarantine.
Entering quarantine was challenging, but it was not until I returned to campus that my “healthy habits” became obsessive and stressful. While researching the impacts of quarantine and the pandemic on mental health, the amount of information available on the return to socialization after isolation was underwhelming and unhelpful.
As I learn to personally navigate social reintegration, I urge researchers and all individuals to not overlook post-quarantine mental health impacts and to ensure that new habits and routines are not physically or mentally harmful.
Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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