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Isolated, but in this together

Social isolation and mental well-being during the coronavirus outbreak

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Picture by Debby Hudson
Picture by Debby Hudson

With various levels of social isolation measures being adopted by individuals and governments to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are feeling the mental and emotional strains of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

If you’re worried about spending more time at home, or feeling more isolated than usual, here are some practical tips to cope, for better mental well-being during this unusual time:

  • Meditation is shown to have a multitude of positive effects on our mental and physical well-being, and now might be a good time to start. You can find many relaxing meditations on the Insight Timer and Calm apps, and maybe even aim to maintain it as a habit going forward. Positive thought-leaders like Deepak Chopra or Megan Monohan have been sharing positive content and meditations on their social media accounts to help us calm down too.
  • Staying mindful when doing your day-to-day tasks can also help. Ideas for when you’re feeling overwhelmed include: calmly closing your eyes and counting five slow, deep breaths in and out; noticing three objects, two sounds and one smell in your immediate environment; or going through all five of your senses individually (noticing sight, smell, sounds, tastes and touch) to stay present whilst preparing or eating a meal. You can also “free write” or journal throughout the experience to better organise and track your thoughts and feelings.
  • Healthy relationships are key for our mental well-being. In less-contagious times, technology can make us feel more socially isolated; but we can also use it to build the sense of community that we might be missing IRL. If you can’t see people in-person, try making sure you speak to someone who makes you feel uplifted on the phone or via video call every day. You can even arrange dinners with loved ones via video call, where you eat a meal at the same time, placing your phones on the other side of the table! It often makes us feel better to discuss how we are feeling with someone we trust. Reaching out people who might be alone, or feeling anxious or overwhelmed, can also help us get through hard times together, even in isolation. Helping others also boosts our own mental well-being.
  • Social media self-isolation support groups (like this one on Facebook, or you can make one on Whatsapp) are popping up to help members stay positive with humour; give novel ideas on using isolation time productively (start a new painting or writing hobby anyone?) or movie and boxset advice; debunk fake news; and share useful advice. Research has even found that shared negative experiences can bring people emotionally closer together.
  • Speaking of using your time productively, if you’ve wanted to read a book (here are 10 books that totally transformed my view of life), learn a new skill (like a language), or take an online course but haven’t prioritised it — take time indoors as an opportunity. Maybe it’s just a household task you’ve been putting off — but take care with any DIY work!
  • If you have or choose to work from, or stay at, home, try to maintain some kind of routine — maybe wake up, go to sleep and eat at regular times, decide to exercise on certain days or diarise blocks of work for certain tasks. Having regular timings has been shown to help maintain sleep, eat healthier and stress less. You can find more tips about working from home in these articles by the BBC and CNN.
  • Taking part in physical activity — you can search for yoga, aerobic or calisthenic exercise videos online — has been found to have numerous benefits like improving our cognitive function, boosting our perceptions of quality of life, and reducing anxiety and depression.
  • Numerous studies show that spending time in nature can have positive effects on us like lowering our blood pressure and boosting happiness. If you can, try to spend time in a garden or on a patio, go for a walk in the park, in a forest or by the sea — taking time to mindfully notice your surroundings. If you’re stuck indoors, maybe simply commit to noticing how the sky looks out the window each day. House plants have even been shown to improve our mood; and listening to nature sounds or looking at images of green environments are thought to have benefits.
  • Laughter is another proven way to make us feel happier, and can even soothe physical tension, strengthen our immune system and provide pain relief. Try catching up on the phone with a positive friend, watch a comedy series or movie, or checking your favourite meme account. Listening to music we enjoy can also boost our mood.
  • It’s good to stay up-to-date with local developments and advice, but if you start to feel overwhelmed and stressed by the news, follow the CDC’s advice and take a break from consuming it. Try not to have news going on in the background — check for updates but not constantly. Notice how you feel before and after you check it. If you feel like you are compulsively checking, give someone you care about a call, or something productive instead.
  • If you are still feeling unable to cope or overwhelmed and speaking to someone close to you who you trust doesn’t help you feel better, contact your family doctor or seek a counsellor or professional therapist — it’s often possible to have sessions remotely, over the phone or online.

Negative emotions often arise when we feel like we don’t have options, but we usually have more personal power than we think. Even in times of uncertainty, we can choose how we respond and take measures to improve our emotional and mental well-being.

We can choose to support each other and to live from a place of compassion for ourselves, those around us, and for humanity as a whole; as we realise our feelings are normal and natural, and so we are in this together.

You can find mental health guidance released specifically for the COVID-19 outbreak by the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Preventioncovering information for the general public, healthcare workers and caretakers of children.

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