Since March 2020, Tamara and her family had been sheltering at home and doing what they could to avoid contracting COVID-19. Yet, just before Christmas, her eldest daughter tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It felt surreal,” said Tamara. “We’d been so careful all along. Reading the headlines, we knew that it was somewhere out there, but to realize that there was COVID in the house was scary.”
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Anna found out about her child’s positive test result via email about three days after the whole family was tested as a pre-visit precaution.
“There was a big red square on the image of the test results, and that’s when my heart dropped,” she said. “My head was spinning with fear and disbelief. There’s no way this could happen to us; we’ve been so safe.”
Holly, who works on a state COVID response team, knew all about preventing viral spread. But when she discovered that a relative who’d been helping care for her cat while she was away tested positive, she worried that her sniffles were more than allergies. Tests later confirmed she had COVID-19—as did her whole family.
“We’ve been fully locked down but got exposed by a random fomite, our cat. I was in disbelief,” she said.
All around the country and the world, households are experiencing this same phenomenon. Someone in the family unexpectedly tests positive for the coronavirus, and everyone’s life screeches to a halt. Many families feel fearful that they or their children could develop serious symptoms, and some do become ill, requiring hospitalization. But no matter the course of their illness, they all must figure out how to quarantine safely, notify others, and deal with their feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, and guilt.
Psychologist Jessica Borelli says it can be extremely stressful when families in quarantine have to move quickly to adjust their usual routines and family roles. Some people have to rearrange space allocation in their house, figure out child care or other household duties, and decide if and how they can continue working.
“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety and distress, and sometimes anger, resentment, and frustration, too,” she says. “People need to find time to take care of themselves if they can.”
I spoke with psychologists, as well as individuals who have had COVID invade their households, to find out the best strategies to help us cope and support each other through quarantine.
Dealing with isolation and disconnection
Psychologist Elisha Goldstein is familiar with the issues people face when dealing with COVID-19, as more and more of his patients or their family members test positive. Some live alone and suffer tremendous isolation and fear, with no one there to comfort them. Others are housed with sick family members, yet still have to isolate—sometimes from their own children.
“It’s really dehumanizing, because there’s typically a natural inclination to want to support other people in your family,” he says. “You might want to hold their hand or just be there for them physically, but you can’t.”
Tamara mentions how hard it was to stay away after her daughter tested positive.
“I had to fight that urge to just hold and hug her,” she says. “And since this all happened during the period leading up to Christmas Day—normally fun family time—it felt sad to not have her with us.”
Quarantining yourself from family members can be very hard—not just logistically, but emotionally, says Goldstein.
“People I see are breaking down crying over this; it’s so hard to be apart from the people you love,” he says. “We have to find ways to stay connected. Otherwise, it can be a slippery slope toward depression.”
How to do that when you are trying to stay apart? By getting creative, says Goldstein. You can share Zoom dinners with people in your house, sign up to take a class together, or even spend time together if you have a space outside (like a big backyard) where you can talk while masked and separated by distance.
Tamara connected with her daughter by leaving little notes and surprise care packages outside of her bedroom door. She also bought art supplies and encouraged her daughter to design buildings using the online game Minecraft, which her daughter could share with her digitally.
“It’s so important to strengthen the bonds of the people you’re with inside your house,” says Tamara. “Affection, hobbies, and communication all help.”
Dealing with the fear and anxiety
Beyond the isolation, people are also dealing with a virus that often produces mild symptoms but can become deadly. It’s normal to feel worried, especially given the dire stories in the news and how fickle the virus seems to be.
Anna, who discovered her daughter was positive then caught the virus herself, felt very anxious during her quarantine, especially after she began having bad headaches. She was careful about the kind of information she consumed from news sources and social media.
“I wouldn’t Google anything; instead, I would call friends and ask them to tell me what I needed to know, so I didn’t see the more alarmist, less helpful stuff,” she says.
Anna’s husband, JJ, who left their house once his wife and two daughters tested positive because he was still negative, worried how his wife would fare watching their kids and struggled to stay calm when her symptoms lingered.
“The hardest part was catastrophizing and feeling so helpless in the uncertainty of it all,” he said.
Anxiety is understandable, but there are more and less effective ways to deal with it, says Goldstein. With that in mind, he has created the Mindful Living Collective, an online platform for people suffering during COVID to connect with one another for social and emotional support. He recommends that when people feel anxious, they focus on what they can control (their reaction) rather than what they can’t (the course of the illness), by:
1. Recognizing the feeling of anxiety and naming it. This helps to separate you a little from the experience and pause before impulsively reacting in a way that might not be helpful.
2. Releasing the feeling by doing something with your body. Since anxiety creates a physiological response, releasing that energy by doing something physical helps. It could be slow, focused breathing, taking a nap, or maybe light exercise—in a backyard, if you have one.
3. Thinking about what you need in the moment and giving it to yourself. Once tension is released, ask yourself what would nurture you in the moment. By preventing anxiety from spiraling out of control, you become open to creative ideas for getting what you need, whether that’s social connection or something else.
JJ found mindfulness apps, like Ten Percent Happier, helped him from becoming too anxious, and he used a thermometer and referred to a symptoms checklist any time he felt worried about getting sick. Anna watched TV to distract herself and sometimes turned to anti-anxiety medication when things got bad. She also kept a pulse oximeter nearby, which reassured her when she was experiencing labored breathing—something others also recommended.
“Having a home pulse-ox reader helped keep me calm when I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Doing a reality check like this when you are worried about COVID—trying to look objectively at how you’re doing rather than getting caught up in imagining how things might progress—can prevent fear from spiraling out of control.
Dealing with shame or guilt
Given the constant reminders to shelter-in-place and wear masks to prevent viral spread, people who test positive can feel as if they’ve done something wrong or worry about the potential social stigma of having COVID.
Though Holly knew she and her family had followed the rules, she still felt bad that her family’s illness affected others. For example, her daughter had been part of an outside filming project for her dance troupe (where everyone wore masks and kept physically distanced at all times); so, she had to alert everyone involved in that—as well as her “pandemic pod” members—that they all had to quarantine.
“The guilt of being part of that, even though I couldn’t control it, was horrible,” she says.
Goldstein understands that people might feel guilt or shame, but he encourages them not to judge themselves.
“Guilt implies that you’ve wronged somebody in some way. If you’re out getting groceries or you’re out taking care of yourself, you’re just doing the best you can,” he says. “People have to move towards letting go of the past and moving in a direction of self-compassion.”
Still, that’s harder to do when others blame you. After Holly alerted the teacher in her daughter’s troupe about her positive test (keeping her daughter’s identity private—normal protocol for contact tracing), one parent somehow discovered that Holly’s family was ill and called to chew her out.
“My husband’s having major body aches, it’s first thing in the morning, and she’s literally screaming at me on the phone,” says Holly. “Even though I direct the state contact tracing program, and I know what the public health implications are and what the privacy and confidentiality laws are, I was almost in tears after that call.”
Borelli tries to explain why sometimes people react so vehemently and want to assign blame. Many people cling to what’s called a “just world hypothesis”—the false belief that bad things only happen to “bad” people—because it gives them the illusion of safety, she says.
“We all want to believe that this virus behaves in a really predictable way and that we can control our circumstances by controlling our behavior,” she says. “It’s a way of distancing from the experience so that you don’t have to entertain the possibility that this too could happen to you.”
But, she adds, it’s obvious that as the virus continues to surge, more and more people are going to be contracting it or quarantining because of possible exposure.
“If you haven’t already been touched by this, you likely will be—if not within your immediate family circle, then from having friends or neighbors or more distant family members who test positive,” she says.
She recommends that people talk about what they would do if they find themselves in this situation and come up with an agreed-upon plan—preferably in advance of getting sick. That way, people won’t find themselves scrambling at the last minute if someone in their household tests positive, and they can avoid potential conflicts that might arise when expectations aren’t clear.
“Thinking about the basic things—like how you would allocate space, who would take on the parenting roles and responsibilities, or who would manage the daily routines if someone tests positive—is all a good idea,” she says.
How we can help each other
As households with COVID are trying to take care of themselves, what do they need from the rest of us?
Tamara noted that it helped when people texted her that they were thinking of her and wanted to help—it made her feel cared for. Anna particularly appreciated people she met online who’d had COVID and offered her their wisdom, as well as those friends who encouraged her to talk about what she was experiencing.
“The single most helpful thing for me was reaching out to people in my life I know and trust who could listen to me,” says Anna.
JJ also mentioned the importance of supportive friends, but cautioned people to be more considerate and careful about what they do and say. He offered a list of do’s and don’ts for people who want to help their friends through this:
Don’t ask a lot of questions of your sick friend and make them feel responsible for your anxiety as well as their own.
Don’t mention scary news items or information—such as, “The ICUs are already at capacity” or “Day eight is really when things take a turn for the worse.”
Ask what you can do to help—errands, meals, Zoom calls—but don’t assume you know what someone needs without checking.
Let people know you are thinking of them, but don’t expect a response or a health report.
Don’t try to give medical advice—unless you’re the doctor on the case.
Goldstein adds that some people try to comfort COVID-19 sufferers by sharing positive news—like the fact that many people recover from COVID after a few weeks, often with minimal symptoms. But this attempt at reassurance can backfire, too, making people feel as if their fear is being discounted.
“For some people, COVID may be no big deal; but for others, they get knocked out for a long time or end up in the hospital,” he says. “Like anything else traumatizing, people need to be able to talk about it; they need witnessing and connection.”
Whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, it’s important that we all keep each other in mind as we go through this time. The pandemic is a worldwide issue that calls upon us all to be our most empathic, supportive selves.
“Nature shows us that a strong web or net is going to catch you,” says Goldstein. “Tapping into that natural interconnection that we have is what’s going to be most healing.”