The COVID diaries - Tips for staying sane in isolation
Many of us are self-isolating to protect everyone’s health, and for those who are accustomed to a lot of social interaction – the extroverts among us – the open-ended nature of the COVID situation rapidly becomes exceedingly difficult.
I’m seeing increased signs of anxiety on social media, often allied with the collapse of regular routines when people are either laid off or working from home, so I’ve put together a brief podcast and a blogpost to offer some strategies that will not only help you to cope, but, hopefully, to do well and emerge at the end of the tunnel in good shape.
Here’s an outline of what I’ll discuss.
The importance of routine Physical and mental wellbeing Listening to your body
So, to begin, I’m going to talk about the importance of routine.
It’s remarkably easy to fall into unhealthy habits when you’re at home day after day. Lolling around in pyjamas, sleeping in, or taking too many unscheduled naps, sitting up till the early hours binge watching or gaming - all of these can contribute to depression and anxiety.
I'm not suggesting that you should leap out of bed at 6am and dress in your work clothes, but it's important to get up at roughly the same time each day, do your morning bathroom thing, and dress in something comfortable. It doesn't matter whether it's clean sweats or your favorite casual clothes: simply getting dressed helps your mind to differentiate between night and day, helping to provide a sense of normality in abnormal times.
It's amazing how easy it is to allow personal hygiene to suffer, especially when you're feeling depressed and, even more particularly, when there doesn't seem to be any end in sight to the situation. But self-care has never been more crucial , so even if you don't feel like it, make the effort and you’ll feel much better.
Have a decent breakfast, make your bed, and wash the dishes. These seem like trivial details but, in common with all aspects of a routine, they contribute to the structure of your day — and this will become increasingly important as time goes on. Similarly, go to bed at a reasonable time and encourage good sleep habits, because quality sleep is of vital importance for the immune system.
This brings us to those other important aspects of physical and mental wellbeing - exercise and nutrition.
Depression and boredom will encourage us to eat empty carbohydrates, because our society offers these as reward foods. They’re addictive, and they trigger the release of certain chemicals in the brain which make us feel better temporarily. So, balancing your diet is critical in order to avoid sugar spikes and piling on excess weight, not to mention rebound depression.
By all means, allow yourself treats, but make sure the bulk of your daily food intake is nutritious. This is also important to help ward off other illnesses because a healthy immune system depends on good nutrition.
But all the good nutrition in the world won't make a difference if you become sluggish, gain weight, and lose muscle tone. Daily walks, if you’re able to go out, will keep you fit and elevate your mood. If circumstances or bad weather prevent this, then work out to a video. There are plenty of these online suited to all ages and levels of fitness. Build this into your routine and you’ll see the benefits in a matter of days.
And perhaps one of the most important aspects of self-care is looking after your mental health.
It's perfectly natural to feel anxious and in low spirits but there is a lot that we can do to offset the effects of our responses to isolation.
We’ve already mentioned routine, nutrition and exercise, but we also need to keep our minds active and avoid boredom and a tendency to dwell on the situation.
Everyone's circumstances are different, some people have adequate financial resources, while others will be struggling. But having an interest you can pursue —whether it be some kind of artistic pursuit, reading books, rationalising your thimble collection, or simply watching interesting videos online having something to look forward to each day will make a considerable difference.
Google can become your best friend! You can make a list of things you had always wanted to find out about. I know someone who has an interest in ceramics and compiled a list of videos from around the world. Watching these stimulated an interest in other art forms and now she makes notes about places that she wants to visit once the isolation is over.
There’s no need to be rigid about timing, but build your interest into your schedule to allow for the pleasure of anticipation. I know that sounds funny, but you'd be surprised at the importance we attach to insignificant details when our lives are restricted in any way.
Reach out to others. Email your friends, talk online, be aware of those who might be feeling very isolated because they don’t have family. Thinking of others helps us to stop focusing on our own frustrations and boosts endorphins in the giver and the receiver.
But be aware that many people are manifesting their anxiety in anger, irritability or emotional withdrawal. Try not to rise to the bait, but also make sure you protect yourself. Don’t offer advice, however well-meaning, unless asked for it: just listen, and if someone is very upset and you don’t know what to say, just say exactly that: “I don’t know what to say, and I wish I could make it better, but I’m here for you.” Often that’s all that’s needed – someone to bear witness to our pain.
Lastly, pay attention to what your own body is telling you.
Stress can cause headaches, digestive upsets, muscle pains and strains and a totally bizarre range of symptoms. These always seem to target our most vulnerable spots, so it you’re someone with back problems, you can be sure the stress of isolation is likely to target that area. So pay attention to posture and your back exercises.
If you find you’re getting physical symptoms of stress, allow yourself to sit quietly, breathing gently, and listen to the sounds around you. Become aware of all the sensations in your body – your feet on the floor, your thighs on the chair. Acknowledge your discomfort and don’t resist it. Allow it some space and you’ll find it becomes less uncomfortable. By all means, take any analgestics you need if in pain, but by lowering the anxiety about your symptoms, you improve the symptoms themselves.
Same with panic attacks. Running on the spot helps with the fight or flight response. Regulate your breathing and, once the worst is over, use the mindful practice I outlined above, to help your mind and body return to normal.
If you’re experiencing panic, severe depression, or other distressing symptoms, reach out for help. We’re all in this together – we all need support – and help is out there.
Stay safe and stay well.