I love solitude. I’m the guy who decided to spend New Year’s Eve alone, in a hut, in the middle of nowhere, for fun. Vipassana was too social for my liking. I regularly self-isolate, happily, by choice. But it’s not always been that way. I know what it’s like to choose self-isolation due to depression and social anxiety, and I’m aware there’s a big difference between what I call skilled and unskilled solitude.
Right now, all across the world, people are confined to their homes, self-isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic. At a time where most of us feel free to make our own choices, being constricted to solitude, against our choice, can feel extremely challenging. In this article, I’ll guide you through the shift in mindset to stay sane during self-isolation.
Before I begin, I want to be clear that I’m aware all of our circumstances are unique. There are parents who are juggling working from home with teaching kids full time. Vulnerable people who are stuck in close quarters with abusive or difficult relationships. I don’t have any experience of this, but I do understand mental health, and my hope is that there’s enough here for anyone to distill a few pointers for their unique situation.
1. Manage Your Expectations
The first step in staying sane and looking after your mental health during self-isolation is letting go of expectations. Because this is a universal experience, a narrative is quickly building around self-isolation, what it means to do it right, how to thrive, how to use this time for growth, etc. I’m fully on-board to make the current lockdown an opportunity for self-development. However, this can quickly become a hindrance. Why?
There are lots of potential traps with self-development. Perfectionism is one of them. If we enter this time all guns blazing, determined to uncover our deepest selves, live our best lives, and come out the other side completely transformed… we’ll soon burn out. Self-development is a lifelong commitment. It’s not just for Christmas. Or… global pandemic lockdown situations.
What I’m trying to say here is that it’s crucial to meet yourself where you’re at. If you’re already in full swing, go deeper. Use the tools you already have. Step up your meditation or journalling or yoga practice. But if this is new to you, be gentle, and start from where you’re at. Look at this as an opportunity to create new lifestyle changes that will far surpass quarantine.
2. Set Realistic Goals For Self-Isolation
I highly recommend goal setting during self-isolation. It’ll provide a sense of direction, purpose, and give you something to focus on. Be realistic though. Remember, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic. How crazy is that?! Talking from experience, if we aim too high we’ll only create more emotional discomfort. So, again, meet yourself where you’re at.
Extra pointer for those experiencing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety — this point especially applies to you. Please be easy on yourself. Oh, that reminds me.
3. Remember Your Problems Don’t Disappear Because of a Pandemic
I’ve got 99 problems and a global pandemic is probably near the top of the list. But I still have 98 other problems in my life that don’t just go away. It’s important to acknowledge that as the external, objective world begins to suffer, our very personal, very subjective problems are still very relevant. This means if you’ve been struggling with relationship issues or financial concerns or body image issues, it’s still relevant.
With the heightened anxiety of self-isolation they could even be more present. Find balance between your life and everything going on in the word. The coronavirus has caused a unique world event which has directly impacted pretty much everyone; world events and the personal collide. At the same time, your life and your unique challenges still deserve your attention.
4. Be Conscious Of Comparison
Social media and modern technology is stepping up at this time, allowing people to connect in cyberspace, meditate, mess about, eat together, sing together, you name it. However, having such an open view of how others are handling the situation can be detrimental to our own wellbeing. I’ve noted a few ways comparison manifests at this time, including:
Comparing our lives to how others spend their time during self-isolation. For example, people talking about how this time is leading to all sorts of insights and growth. It can and it does, but don’t beat yourself up if you spend most of the day in your pants, browsing Twitter, binge-eating Ben and Jerry’s and occasionally staring into the abyss.
Comparing our situation to those worse off. Great, this is an indication of empathy and compassion and the future of humanity relies on people like you. Just make sure this doesn’t become a way of minimising your experience and numbing the individual pain you feel. In my experience, this is actually one of the most common symptoms of depression. It’s all relative.
Comparing our lives now to our lives before. Shit got real, everything changed. Things we’ve taken for granted have disappeared seemingly overnight and the football’s been cancelled. When we look at what we’ve lost, it’s important to grieve. Feel it all. Allow space for the sense of loss. This is temporary but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Watch out for an ego-trap here, though. It’s easy to become stuck in anger, self-pity or indignation rather than genuinely feel pain.
More information in the video below:
5. Set Boundaries With People You Live With
Setting boundaries doesn’t mean creating borders with chalk on the kitchen floor. It just means expressing healthy emotional, energetic or physical boundaries in your household. A difficult conversation now will save a lot of hassle later. Now is such a good opportunity to create open dialogue with people you live with.
Communicating boundaries can be done with compassion and understanding. If it’s possible, get together with those you live with and check-in with what people’s needs are. Of course there will be compromise, but find ways for each individual to have space to nurture themselves. For example, designating a space for uninterrupted “me-time”.
6. Feel Shit
Let’s face it, right now the whole world is suffering. With that comes sadness. Right now, there’s a whole lot of uncertainty. With that comes anxiety. As we self-isolate, it’s crucial to confront the shadow elements of ourselves with compassion. The universe has led us to a place where we can’t distract or run away from these processes.
Emotions are there to be felt, nothing more. Turn towards sadness, turn towards anxiety. Feel it. Just really feel it without adding a storyline (why do I feel this way, these emotions are horrible I’d rather watch Netflix…) and just feel it. Then express what happens, with tears or weird noises or whatever (but be careful when in public).
Ultimately, taking a mindful, non-judgemental view, emotions are energy. The more we can tune in to their texture and sensation without labelling, the more we begin to appreciate their presence rather than fear them and wish for them to go away. By allowing the natural rise and fall of emotions, like clouds in the sky, we keep their organic cycles ticking over, avoid then becoming trapped, and lighten ourselves in the process.
7. Talk About Shit
I’m one of those people. You know the ones who, when asking you how you’re doing, genuinely wants to know how you’re doing. It’s a blessing and a curse because sometimes people don’t want to talk about how they’re doing and, well, I’ve had to balance my incessant need to know how people are doing with not always asking how people are doing. Sometimes people don’t return my texts and I wonder if this is why. Maybe I’ll never know…
Anyway, point being, now is a really, really important time to actually talk about how you’re doing, openly. I get that emotions aren’t easy to articulate and that this practice may feel foreign. It does take time to learn ways to express how we feel. Me and my depression homies talk differently for most when it comes to this, because we’ve learnt how to for survival. When not talking becomes life threatening, we’re encouraged to be open.
Because of the current situation it’s crucial to regularly check-in, either in-person or over the phone, with friends and family and articulate as well as you can what you feel. Word of caution, linked to boundaries: emotionally dump with careful discernment. What I mean by this is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and share how you are, but be conscious of unloading your emotions freely onto others.
Communication is key. Reach out to loved ones regularly, check-in, make the most of the way we can remain connected during self-isolation through modern technology.
8. Respect Your Body
What with this current outbreak, most of us are now extra vigilant when it comes to our health. So what better time to start to develop a healthy relationship with the intelligent, organic infrastructure of aliveness we call the body? Treat your body well. It’s fighting the good fight for you right now. It’s with you your entire life and it looks after you. Your heart beats for you. Your stomach digests your food and nourishes you. Your lungs allow you to breathe.
So many of us take the body for granted. This is sad. A deep spiritual lesson of this time is highlighting what we’ve taken for granted. Have you ever been more aware of your own immune system and how it protects you from outside threats? Me neither. The body works tirelessly in the background, keeping you alive. It’s not a lump of flesh but a living organism with its own intelligence. Get to know it. Talk to it (not joking). Learn how to treat your body well.
That involves fuelling it with nourishing food, drinking plenty of water, reducing stress through meditation, yoga, or general movement, getting as much sleep as possible, reducing alcohol and junk food consumption. List goes on.
9. Respect Yourself
If I had to choose the biggest factor between skilled and unskilled solitude, it’d be self-compassion. Learning to enjoy your own company is probably the most beneficial thing you can do in life. Like your body, you will always be with yourself, too. As you confront emotions, change your relationship with your body and go easy on yourself, now’s a great time to learn about yourself.
Again, talk to yourself (you don’t need to be crazy to write here but it helps). Journal. As the Buddhists remind us, there’s no fixed self anyway. So rather than seeing “me” as one entity, engage with different parts of you. The inner-child. The inner-critic. The inner-joker. Explore the wonderful world of you and, best you can, embrace the parts you don’t like, starting with acceptance.
10. Create Familiarity Through Routine
Setting a routine right during self-isolation, along with realistic goals, is highly beneficial. I might be on the extreme side of routine and structure but there’s a reason for that. Structure provided the foundation for my recovery from depression, anxiety, psychosis. By setting routines in my day I created more stability for my inner-world. The benefits are huge. Set a routine for your day as if you were in an office and stick to it best you can. Value the time slots you create.
You might not be used to creating structure out of thin air, but as someone who’s worked from home for a number of years, this is an invaluable skill. My Google calendar looks like an advanced game of Candy Crush. It means setting aside time and sticking to it. Not militantly, of course; allow room for spontaneity and flexibility. But having some outline to your days and weeks will provide a sense of stability during an unfamiliar time.
11. Take Each Day As It Comes
Ultimately, we don’t know how long self-isolation will last. As we face this crisis, we don’t have much choice other than to be as present as we can be to each moment and each day. This means, everytime our minds project ahead to the future and spin stories of catastrophe, we genty bring our attention back to where we are, right now, over and over, again and again.
Take each day and take each moment. Notice those moments of calm when they’re present. Notice ease or joy or laughter. It’s okay to feel light at this time, it’s okay to oscillate between light and dark. Ultimately all we can ever do is be present. What better time to start practicing that than now?