You only have to glance the aisles of the supermarkets to know that people have been considering the practicalities of being isolated in their own homes. But how do we address the impact that isolation will have on our mental health?
Understandably, there is a lot of fear, trepidation and anxiety around the uncertainty of our global situation. It’s hard and worrying, because…it IS hard and worrying. Covid-19 is the term upon everyone’s lips, and many things hang in the balance. If you’re experiencing anxiety, read my article on addressing coronavirus anxiety here.
I’m going to give you practical tips to protect your mental health as we follow government guidelines for the foreseeable future.
Whilst the physical space that is available to us will be limited significantly to normal, ‘space’ is going be harder to come across. If you are living with others, find ways to create personal space and quiet away from the noise.
Perhaps you agree a set time in the day where you take it in turns to have half an hour on uninterrupted quiet, set your alarm so that you wake to stillness. You might find it helpful to retreat to a particular corner of your home and put your headphones on.
This enforced slowness may well bring to the surface emotions that have been hidden in the busyness of life. As the pace slows, emotions such as grief, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, trauma and sadness may emerge from the depths of where they have been hidden.
It is important to find ways to to verbalise some of these emotions. It can feel vulnerable, but the only way to process, and soften emotion is to give it appropriate space. If you can, speak to a trusted friend or family member. Take little steps of openness. You don’t have to tell them everything straight away, but it’s important to validate and respect what you are feeling. You might want to speak with your GP, or browse these helplines.
Seek physical comfort
I don’t think we realise how much small gestures of touch positively impact our mental health until they aren’t possible. A hug, a handshake, the brush of an arm or the pat of a back – all work to make us feel accepted and appreciated. For some, the lack of touch is going to feel prominent.
If appropriate (strictly following guidelines relevant for you), increase physical contact with pets and those in your home. More hugs with kids or drag the cat upon your lap as you watch TV. If you are alone and isolated, wrap a heavy blanket tightly around your shoulders for a feeling of containment. It’s not the same, I know, but it’s something.
Hold house meetings
Your home is likely to be used differently now there may be more people there. Hold regular meetings in order to delegate responsibilities. With lack of commutes, and the home doubling up as a workplace, you may need to set new boundaries and adapt roles. Unclear boundaries, confused roles and mismatched expectations can cause resentment and frustration.
Be intentional not passive
Let’s face it, whilst we can hazard a guess and make speculation, we don’t know exactly how long we will be isolated. Our government are constantly assessing and amending guidelines.
Don’t put life on hold. We have a choice on how we view this period of life. If we see it as a waiting room, we may become passive, letting the days slip through our fingers as we wait for some kind of familiarity to resume. Or we can use this time to learn, grow, develop relationships and invest in things that have been on the back burner! There is absolutely time and need for quiet and rest, but being intentional about the way we choose to live could mean that we learn and grow positively as individuals and families.
Maintain the weekend
It could be so easy to forget what day of the week it is, but finding ways to maintain the structure of the week can be really helpful. Having the weekend to look forward to gives us something to lean towards as we complete another week. In our home, you’ll find relaxed rules, pyjamas at breakfast, a little more tv and more exciting snacks!
Boredom is something that we have long avoided with busyness, and filling every moment with a scroll or a soundtrack. Boredom isn’t a negative thing, yet it has been something we have tried to avoid at all costs.
Boredom gives our brains space to process feelings and experiences. It allows us to daydream and get creative. Remember the pre-technology days when sitting on a train or a plane meant looking out the window, thinking, remembering. That was valuable time.
Boredom is uncomfortable when we feel anxious, or have suppressed emotion because the feelings and thoughts y come forward when space is found. Once we begin to find techniques that help us productively acknowledge and address our anxiety and any trauma, we can start to enjoy those moments of boredom.
Gratitude for the small
Grab a piece of paper and write down a list of 30 things that you are grateful for. Note how you feel beforehand, and how you feel afterwards. Gratitude is a powerful tool, it calls us to look at what is right and good in our lives, bringing balance and perspective.
Bringing balance into confusion
I’m going to tell you a personal story to illustrate this.
I remember being ten. I was with my younger brother, rolling sideways down a steep, grassy slope in our little village. We were laughing hysterically, swaying dizzily as we stood. The thing was, we were rolling down the slope of a graveyard. Short weeks after we stood there burying our sister.
It wasn’t that grief didn’t sit like an elephant on our small hearts, or that our cheeks weren’t stinging from the salty tears we cried. It was that, in that moment, there was joy. And we didn’t know to strip the richness of the laughter by focussing on the aching confusion and pain. We just let it be. Sure there were tears that came after. Confusion, vulnerability – it was all there. But there was also laughter and joy too.
There is pain, hardship, uncertainty. There are tears, grief, fear. But when we let ourselves see and experience the joy, or pertinence of the moments that we walk through, it brings balance. It brings perspective.
No feeling is out of bounds. You may find yourself feeling a multitude of conflicting emotions and that is okay. Remind yourself that you can feel frustration AND relief. Fear AND happiness. Grief AND joy. Feelings may sound they are contradicting one another, but we are multi-layered beings, the more we try and dictate what we should or shouldn’t be feeling, the harder it makes them to process, and therefore pass!
If you are living in a situation in which you are in emotional or physical risk, or living in relationship dynamics that are harmful in some way. Please seek support. You’ll find details on how to get support for domestic abuse here, and relationship support here.
If you are concerned about your mental health, you can find some tips for anxiety here, along with some contacts for support. You might find it very helpful to connect with people who are in similar situations to you. Mind has an online peer support community called Elefriends .
Monitor digital usage
We are going to be leaning on technology and the online world more to entertain, connect and support us. The internet can be both constructive and destructive, and it’s important to monitor how we are utilising it. Scrolling to feel connected is one thing, but if we find ourselves embroiled in a cloud of unhealthy comparison that makes us feel worse, then it’s not so helpful.
Consider using apps to help monitor and guide your use of social media and how long you spend on it. Before you pick up your phone, consider why and whether you’re going to benefit from the way you may be intending to use it. If you want to explore this further, this page is helpful.
Find light relief
Watch or read somethings that make you smile and laugh, or pick up the phone to someone who never fails to raise your spirits. Laughter brings a welcome dose of happy endorphins, seek it and enjoy it.
Do something for others
Altruism is good for mental health. Helping others gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. What might you do to support those around you in any way, big or small? Perhaps calling an elderly neighbour, or dropping some groceries on the doorstep of a family who need them.
Building routine can be really grounding. Even though we cannot plan our days around the things we usually do, you can still benefit from the predictability of routine by creating your own. However, ensure it is lose enough so as not to increase stress. Ensure plenty of flexibility to allow for fluctuating mood and feelings.
I’d recommend getting up and going to bed at the same time you usually do. Get up and dressed and make the bed. It may be a good chance to tweak routine to benefit you, adding in things you don’t usually find the time for such as exercise or hobbies. It’s still good to do the things that make you feel yourself – like wearing clothes you enjoy regardless of who sees you.
Get fresh air
Regardless of what restrictions are placed on spending time outdoors, ensure that you are getting a dose of nature every day. It is known to improve mood and reduce stress. Get outside if guidelines allow can or sit on your doorstep with your morning cup of tea if you are able. But regardless, open the windows daily even if it means wearing an extra layer. Bring the outside in – bring a pot plant indoors, lie or sit and listen to the sounds that come through your open window.
Feeling like we’ve accomplished something is so rewarding and enforces a sense of purpose. Consider what you might be able to tick off the to-do list each day. Maybe there is a drawer you’ve always intended to clear out, or the kitchen has been begging for a thorough clean. Perhaps your digital photos need sorting, and you’ve always meant to map out some photo books!
Stimulate your brain
Have you always wanted to learn a new language, master crochet, or have a pile of industry magazines that have sat gathering dust? Now is the time. Regardless of whether you are working at home or not, keep your brain stimulated, however don’t pressure yourself to have to do it all!
Setting yourself a task or a project gives something to work towards and it’s always really enjoyable to see progress in your skills! There are lots of apps that help your learn languages, podcasts to give insight into different topics. What’s more the FutureLearn and OpenLearn websites offer some free online courses!
Pick up the phone and have voice to voice discussions with friends and family. It’s easier to simply send messages, but visual and voice calls give more of a sense of being with that person. It’s not the same as physically being with someone, but it’s beneficial in maintaining relationships. Text messages can be easily misunderstood too, so seeing and hearing someone adds context as you can hear tone of voice and see expression.
Seek at least one voice-to-voice conversation per day, especially if you’re alone. If you’re not able to do this, listen to talk shows on the radio to provide a sense of verbal company.
In stressful or worrying times it can be a welcome relief to get respite from our own thoughts. Flow activity examples are colouring, jigsaws, painting, sudoku, playing board games or cards and other activities in which you lose track of time! The world around you quietens and stress is calmed.
Our main excuse for not engaging in self care has been that we are too busy. But now the busyness has been stripped away, if you still find it hard, it’s often because you don’t believe you are worth acts of kindness towards yourself. Address your internal dialogue. Living in a home with an internal bully isn’t going to be helpful at all. Start to introduce a more kind and compassionate voice, and hopefully you’ll then find it easier to engage in acts of nourishment.
Whatever your experience of exercise, now is a good time to routinely engage in it at home. We are so fortunate that the digital world offers many free workouts for all levels of experience and fitness.
Whether you engage in some gentle movement, or something more intense, all you need is space for a mat. Exercise is brilliant for both mental and physical health as they are inextricably linked. Find something suitable for your fitness level, and perhaps find an app or Facebook group that encourages a sense of community and
In stressful times it’s increasingly tempting to comfort eat. However, this is such a good time to consider how you might eat well for mental health. Eating well has a positive impact on both our physical and mental health, whereas consistent overindulging makes us feel sluggish. If you struggle with this, and would like some further support, visit the BEAT website.
Cooking itself can be therapeutic. If you’re a sofa eater, challenge yourself to head to the table for some mealtimes. If you don’t have people to eat with at home, try a FaceTime dinner date. With online supermarket deliveries in high demand, batch cooking healthy, warming, balanced meals will get more out of your order.
I just wanted to finish with a pep talk. I so wish I had the answers, but I don’t. So see this as a metaphorical hand on your shoulder. This is a tough time of unchartered territory. The ground on which you stand has been shaken and we are all stumbling around trying to find ways to navigate the constantly changing guidelines and rules. There is collective grief, grief for the things that are no longer as we know them, fear for the health of those we love. Be kind to yourself, there is no map. Lower your standards of what you ‘should’ be achieving. You will get into a groove in time. The forced slower pace will become a new kind of normal, the and jarring sense of uncertainty and fear will blur. Focus on today, this moment. Use all the support mechanisms available to you. Anchor yourself in the things you know to be true so that they bring balance to the unanswered questions. It’s hard because it is hard. It’s tough, because it’s tough. But so are you.