Neuroscience News: Exploring the psychological impact of sheltering in place


Residents of Santa Clara County have been ordered to shelter in place until at least April 7. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and social distancing is currently the most effective strategy to curtail the rampant spread of novel coronavirus.

Coronavirus testing has been slow, and there is limited accurate data on the true number of community cases in the U.S., with estimates in the tens to hundreds of thousands, doubling every five to seven days.

With recommendations to stay home and venture out only for essential supplies, telework in place and close K-12 schools and most colleges, the psychological impact of the curfew is a major concern. The current pandemic is triggering fear on a societal level.

Research published in Lancet last week by Dr. Samantha Brooks and her team highlights the psychological impact of quarantine measures and self-isolation on well-being. The psychological cost of quarantine measures includes confusion, anger, insomnia, anxiety, depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Fear of infection, inadequate information, lack of supplies, stigma, xenophobia and financial loss are strong contributing factors.

A history of mental health issues has emerged as a demographic risk factor likely to exacerbate the impact of the current “war time” social isolation measures. Appraisal of any physical symptoms during periods of quarantine presents real anxiety and fear associated with being infected or having infected others, especially vulnerable loved ones. The reduced social and physical contact and the absence of typical routine during the shelter-in-place order lead to boredom and a sense of isolation. In the general population, health-care workers report the greatest level of psychological impairment from dealing with pandemics.

This is not the first time we have heard of quarantine measures to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly virus. Canada and China implemented similar quarantine measures during the SARS outbreak in 2003, and West African countries in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak. The psychological impact of those shelter-in-place measures was profound, including increased suicide rates associated with efforts to minimize the spread of the viruses.

Parents with school-age children may already be experiencing the frustration of trying to work remotely and home school their kids. Gov. Gavin Newsom shocked parents and students last week when he announced he does not expect schools and colleges to reopen before the end of this school year.

The long-term impact of the stress experienced by families and the 500,000 school-age children in Santa Clara County – particularly lower-income families and those working in the service industry, unable to work because they must care for children at home or experiencing loss of jobs – is uncertain.


Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She aims to help teens understand themselves by using the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes the explanations on her website,

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