The 5 Psychological Stages of Isolation

You know that feeling when you read something at just the right time, and everything makes sense? I love those moments. This is exactly what happened to me the other week. Apple+ News suggested an article that made sense of the shit in my head. (That quarantine indulgence paid off!)

Lately, as more things are opening, I find myself doing mental calculations. How much do I really want to do [fill-in-the-blank] versus the risk of doing it versus how uncomfortable I’d feel doing it. Getting my roots retouched? Essential. Going to a sweaty cardio class? I’ll hold off. Flying? You get it.

That’s when I came upon the article.

Dr. Kimberly Norris, a psychologist at the University of Tasmania, has studied people in extreme isolation. She describes the 5 stages of isolation and applies them to our current pandemic situation.

Once I read the article, I realized I was in Stage 4, or the Reunion stage, which is marked by the excitement AND apprehension as restrictions are lifted. Those 2 words pretty much nailed it.

But what comes before that? How did we get here? Here are her 5 psychological stages of COVID-19 isolation:

Please note that in order to make sure I communicate her stages accurately, everything in italics is a direct quote from the article. My interjections are not italicized.

Isolation Stage 1 – Confusion and panic: Fear takes over, as people struggle to fathom what’s happening around them and how quickly life has been turned on its head. Widespread panic-buying ensues, as large areas of the world are sent into restrictive quarantine. My confession: I did panic-buy excessive amounts of snack food early on. Why I stocked up on snack food for a respiratory virus is another question.

Isolation Stage 2 – The ‘honeymoon’ period: When the initial panic subsides, a rose-tinted view of the situation takes over. People view isolation as a positive novelty that allows them to spend more time at home with family (working out together!) and reconnect with old friends over video calls. Millions download conferencing apps … and educational tools…. (What a great time to learn more Yiddish!) Others enroll in virtual courses and take online cookery classes. (I’ll make a new recipe every week!) Did you know that more people searched for banana bread in March and April 2020 than at any other time in history?

It’s true. The New York Times published their 15 favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes, and I was on a mad tear trying a new one every week.

Isolation Stage 3 – Resentment: The novelty of working from home in pajamas and avoiding the morning commute quickly vanishes, replaced by a deep-seated resentment triggered by loneliness and fear of the future. (I wondered why my mood took a nosedive). People become sluggish and paranoid, and grow tired of logging on to international video chats. This is known as the ‘third-quarter phenomenon,’ a psychological phase first identified in the early 1980s in studies on extreme confinement and isolation.

While I still really liked my redefined “work casual” wardrobe, I remember a few weeks ago feeling waves of fatigue, loneliness, sadness, and a general malaise that I couldn’t shake.

Isolation Stage 4 – Reunion: Attitudes are divided between hopeful excitement and apprehension, as restrictions are gradually lifted, and the world braces for the ‘new normal’ of life after lockdown. Readjusting to a society filled with crowds, packed public transport, and large team meetings is a form of ‘reverse culture shock.’ Dr. Norris says it’s ‘absolutely normal’ to feel a rollercoaster of emotion during this re-entry period, with waves of joy quickly overtaken by fear and anxiety.

Yep. Pretty much sums up how I’m feeling now.

Isolation Stage 5 – Reintegration: The as yet unknown, when millions will return to their workplaces, bars and restaurants will open their doors for sit-in customers, and international travel resumes.

I find it helpful to know that what I was (and am) feeling is normal and to be expected. Who doesn’t like a little certainty? Who doesn’t feel better knowing they aren’t alone in their experience? Honor where you are in the process … without judgement. Self-judgment is counterproductive, to say the least, and often downright destructive.

If you’re in a place where you’re unable to work through your emotions alone, please seek help. Let’s connect. From therapy to coaching, there are tools that can help. And, yes, we can meet via video.