There’s a gentle breeze floating in through my window, carrying the sound of birdsong, accompanied by the most beautiful sunshine. It’s easy to forget there’s a war raging outside. One the entire world is fighting, against an invisible enemy.
Self-isolation has taken its toll on everyone in one way or another, and it’s more important than ever to look after our mental health. I’ve lost count of how many people have called or messaged these past few weeks – even people who I haven’t spoken to in up to fifteen years. Some were desperate for human contact in any way they could get it (really, readers, check in on your extrovert friends!) but the majority just needed to talk. To vent. To give voice to their fears and insecurities and stresses, and, inevitably taking power away from the silent foe.
That first week of isolation was filled with stress and pressure and fear, but since implementing these eight things into my own life, my mental health has been so much better. My mood has gotten better, my productivity has doubled, and I’m clear enough to enjoy the sun on my skin and the birds singing outside my window. Hopefully these insights can help you find some solace, too, if nothing else.
1. Don’t think of isolation as a choice taken away. Think of it as a choice you’ve made. It’s not about how susceptible you are to this virus; how likely you are to get it or become severely ill from it. It’s about all the lives you’re saving by dampening its spread. You have made the choice to join the fight against COVID-19 by staying home. You are saving lives. When you feel the walls closing in, remind yourself of that. You are so lucky that all you’re being asked to do is stay at home.
2. Do your part in spreading a little light throughout your community. Donate some food to the foodbanks who are trying to keep people from starving. Offer to walk your neighbour’s dog if they’re high-risk and you’re not. Buy a packet of tissue paper for someone who needs it when you’ve found a shop that stocks them. Do the grocery shop for the elderly couple down the road who can’t do it themselves. Most importantly, say ‘thank you’! Thank the healthcare professionals who risk their lives every day trying to save those with the virus. Thank the scientists working on treatments and vaccines. Thank the people who are still working, stocking our shelves, delivering our goods and taking out our bins. Thank the friends who are phoning and texting and video calling so that you’re not alone. We’re in this together!
3. There’s a line in a romance movie from the early 2000s: “I have a life, and I’m running late for it.” I like to think of this time as the earth slowing down for us. Life moves at such a fast pace and we’re being given the chance to stop. To not be late for anything. This is the time for us to reconnect with ourselves. To reflect on the things that have happened in the past few years and decide where we want to go from here on out. For those of you who get bored and can’t decide how to spend your time, I recommend this: On pieces of paper, write down all the things you need to do that you’ve been putting off – washing the windows, mowing the lawn, dusting the house, getting your paperwork in order. Then write down all the things you want to do – start a new distant learning course, start (hell, finish) a jigsaw puzzle, take an online yoga class, learn to play the guitar that’s been sitting in the corner of the room for months. Put them all in a box or jar, whatever you can get your hands on, and give it a good shake. Whenever you’ve got nothing to do, pull a piece of paper and follow its instruction. Keep your mind busy and it will stop wandering to the worst scenarios.
4. Set aside half an hour where you can catch up on the recent developments with the coronavirus. Choose one or two reliable sources and switch off the news for the rest of the day. Have you got a news app on your phone? Turn off notifications. Is the news playing on the TV? Turn the channel. While it’s important that we know what’s going on in the world, we need to limit our intake of it before we fall down a rabbit hole and get stuck in a never-ending pit of fear and anxiety. It’s okay to snooze that friend on Facebook who keeps posting death rates. It’s okay to get off social media all together for a while. It’s okay to say ‘no’. There’s a reason the phrase is ignorance is bliss.
5. Try to remember that other people’s feelings, fears and thoughts are not your own. We may all be dealing with the same thing, but our perceptions are different, our experiences are different, and the way we handle it is different. Don’t be dragged down into the darkness because you’ve absorbed other people’s negativity. Recognise what anxieties are your own and what has been transferred onto you and avoid situations where you know it may happen. It’s okay to bow out of conversations that start you spiking.
6. Regular readers will know that I have a process I call ‘Shoot the Hostage’ (if you haven’t seen Speed, now is the perfect time to watch it!). The idea is simple. There’s a root to all our anxiety and fear and panic and stress. But the root is often blocked by all these branches that have grown from it. So, list out what each of the branches represent, every worrisome thought you have, and one at a time, you shoot them with a rational counter argument or a solution. For example, I worry my loved ones half a world away will catch coronavirus. Let’s shoot that down with logic. I know for a fact that they’re taking every possible precaution. I know there are more people recovering from COVID-19 than are dying from it. I know there’s a possibility, even a probability, that they won’t even catch it! Bye, bye to that branch. Next? I worry that a friend’s business is going to go under because she can’t be at work to keep it running. Well, let’s meet on FaceTime and list out everything we can possibly do to prevent that from happening, instead of sitting with the fear that it will. Eventually, you’ll see the root of the problem, and you can shoot it right between the eyes – with logic, a solution, faith. I promise it’s not at all as scary as it seems.
7. Every time I tell people that 6th point, the serenity prayer comes to mind. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. And onto my next piece of advice we go. Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Dwelling on this is the worst possible thing you can do in isolation. It drains all the good things from you and inserts its own misery and darkness. Letting go of things doesn’t have to be permanent. You just need to recognise what it is you need to focus on now. It’s the now that’s important. Take each day, each hour, as it comes. Why stress about whether this is going to take three weeks or three months to clear up? What does that bring you apart from fear and anxiety (and looming boredom)? You can’t change that. You can’t do anything about it. It will take as long as it takes. So, focus on what you can change instead. Focus on what you can control.
8. And finally, the bubble. I can’t count the amount of people who have cried to me on the phone, filled with negativity they just can’t shake. I’ve given them each an exercise, and I give this exercise to you too, dear readers. Close your eyes in a quiet room. Think of all the good things in your life right now. The love. The laughter. The happiness. Imagine it all surrounding you, like a bubble. A protective shield. Then imagine all that negativity. The fear. The anxiety. The stress. Watch the shadowy figures crash into your bubble. Watch them fail to penetrate it. Imagine your bubble expanding with each breath you take. Imagine the light that all of that good is shining. Watch the shadowy figures dissipate in it, until there’s nothing left. That bubble follows you everywhere. Nothing can get through it, unless you let it.
I promise that if you try to implement even one of these tools, you’ll feel some of the stress of the times lifting off your shoulder. Enjoy the sun and the birdsong and the breeze coming through your window, readers. Enjoy not having to be stuck in a crowded place. Enjoy having the chance to read that book you’ve had on your bedside table for months, or that TV show you’ve been meaning to catch up on. Enjoy spending time with yourself and getting to know who you are now as opposed to who you were then. Enjoy the peace of the moment. The stillness. The serenity.