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No one in the world today has not been affected by COVID-19. This double-negative illustrates how COVID-19 adversely impacts teens all over the world by causing both illness and isolation. Fortunately, for most teenagers the virus causes only mild sickness; however, it’s had severe and widespread emotional, psychological, and social impact on teens.

In the younger stages of childhood, kids rely mostly on their parents to learn how to interact with the external world, build relationships, and form a sense of self. Teenagers, however, rely heavily on their peers to help navigate the process of developing their individual identities, through social pursuits like conversation, group activities, and relationships. Many important events occur during the transition into adulthood in the teen years, such as the hormonal confusion of puberty, first love, first jobs, and learning how to properly wield an automobile.

During adolescence, humans’ practice being adults in the [safe] container provided by parents and caregivers, cementing an ability to live in the external world through utilizing a forming internal sense of self. By adulthood, if all goes well, a person has completed the two tasks of childhood: to learn how to interact with people (creating skills to navigate the external world) and to know themselves by developing a sense of self (cultivating skills to navigate the internal world). But what happens if there’s a disruption to this process? What happens when parent’s divorce? What if teens are isolated from other teens, such as with this COVID-19 pandemic?

The Corona Virus has infected millions globally, caused chaos in everyone’s daily lives, and severely isolated many people. If we look in the mirror, our eyes, facial expressions, and fashion/styling choices give many clues about our internal selves. Similarly, when we look at and interact with our peers, we also gain reflections of ourselves. Who do I get along with? What is the nature of my social group? What activities do I engage in that display my identity? Friends give us an important sense of belonging. Inherently social, humans (like most mammals and many bird and insect species) exist and survive because we’re part of a group. As we venture out of our family and develop our social identities, we find reassurance, meaning and purpose in social groups. Without people to physically reflect our identities back to us, such as now during the pandemic, it’s easy to become anxious or depressed.

Anxiety, a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease (often about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome) is frequently a difficult feeling to pin down or define. If I’m hiking and see a rattlesnake, I know why I’m afraid. If I feel anxious in isolation, it may not feel so easy to identify why. Anxiety is a state of feeling alone and vulnerable, combined with the essential human desire to connect and feel safe. If anxiety persists, a person may come to feel as if something’s wrong with them and start to believe that they are somehow worthless or unlovable.

Depression, feelings of severe despondency and dejection, is a state of sadness or grief. When mildly or moderately depressed, we’re actually better able to see the realities of our social lives than when we’re not depressed. The brain uses mild depression to help us analyze what might cause us to feel unhappy, devise plans to re-enter our social group, interact in new ways, and ideally find fulfillment and reassurance in our people. If we do not succeed in our attempts at reaching out, we may become severely depressed, causing us to shutdown emotionally and socially isolate.

Now, during the pandemic, physically isolated from our friends and social groups, we’re all more at risk of experiencing anxiety and depression at varying degrees. While at home working on classes and assignments online and only seeing friends on a screen (a poor substitute for in-person connection), doing the following things can help keep anxiety and depression under control:

  • interact with friends by text, email, phone calls, social media or video games
  • go for a jog or a bicycle ride
  • rock climb or dribble a soccer ball
  • hang out with siblings, parents, or the family pet
  • read a good book or watch an interesting documentary film
  • be creative and paint, write, or build a robot.

Remember that this isolation will end, and we’ll re-enter the world someday soon, living with new post-pandemic health precautions — a “New Normal”.

The “New Normal” can also mean better understanding the impact of alone-ness and isolation on our psychological health and social well-being. In alone-ness, we can work on growing and strengthening our internal sense of self, and once we’re back around friends and peers, we can continue to grow and strengthen our abilities to interact with the external world with better knowledge of ourselves. Maybe this time of hardship will help us gain more acceptance and compassion for ourselves and others. Whether our experiences feel positive or challenging, wanted or unwanted, crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic can always help us to grow.

Dr. Kevin Rexroad has been practicing psychiatry in Albuquerque, NM for 22 years: 4 years of resident training at the University of New Mexico; 4 years at Lovelace Behavioral Health and 14 years in Private Practice.