The challenge of social isolation and distancing and how to cope with it
The challenge of social isolation and distancing
As a way of responding to the threat of the Corona Virus, people in countries from all across the world are being asked, and ordered, to drastically reduce their social interactions with others to limit the spread of the virus. This will be a necessary but stressful experience for a large amount of people for a number of reasons.
We are social animals, and often in times of difficulty and uncertainty one of the best ways we can support ourselves mentally is to connect with others, especially to those whom we have strong emotional bonds with like our friends, family and the people we love. In addition to being with others, touch and human contact such as a hug, kiss or even a handshake are ways that we connect and communicate with one another to show love, support and respect.
However, now we are being asked not to do the very things that we use to support ourselves mentally and emotionally that we usually rely upon in times of stress, danger and uncertainty.
Accepting this will be testing and difficult at times
I think part of the way we can help ourselves to get through this period of time is to recognise that it is going to be difficult and pose challenges. As of writing it is uncertain how long social distancing and isolation policies are going to have to be in place, at a minimum 3 weeks in the UK but it is looking like even after that social distancing policies will be present in some form until a vaccine is developed which many estimate will take between 12-18 months. So this state of living is unfortunately here to stay for a while.
We are also being asked to adapt to a very different way of living at a breakneck speed. The speed at which things are moving is so fast, as governments rush to try and manage a situation that appears to be out of their control.
People are generally naturally averse to change unless there is a clear recognisable benefit to themselves and with socially distancing and isolating ourselves we are being asked to sacrifice a lot of our individual freedom for the collective good. For more individualistic societies like the West this is a big ask and something we are not used to doing.
Even though we are being asked to do something that is not as risky to our own well-being such as the challenges previous generations had to go through, this is still an unprecedented challenge and goes against much of our psychological framework and our values. To pretend otherwise might make us feel that we are failing somehow if we do find things difficult and feel like we are struggling to keep motivated. So let’s acknowledge that this is a challenge and have compassion for ourselves whilst we find our way through it.
Recognising that we will actively have to take steps to look after our mental health
I think that it is important to realise that we will need to actively look at and most likely change the ways we support ourselves through this time. What I mean by this is that most of the time, people don't consciously think about how they look after their mental health or how they deal with difficult emotions. Over our lives we have built up ways of coping with stress and difficult times unconsciously and habitually and usually, not always, they work well enough.
Unfortunately now a lot of these ways of coping that we commonly turn to through times of stress and difficulty are going to be disrupted or not possible at all now. As a result, we need to recognise this and actively reorganise our lives so that we can support themselves in this more restricted world. This means that you will most likely have to get out of your comfort zone in the short term to protect your mental health in the medium to longer term.
Difficult emotions you might experience
It's hard to know exactly what each individual person's experience will be during this time. It will depend a large amount on their circumstance, temperament and the choices we make about how we support ourselves and make sense of things.
It will also depend upon what's been happening for you recently and how much change and disruption to your life you are experiencing. For someone who frequently worked from home before this disruption, who still has a source of income to live on and lives with their family, it might not be too much of a change for them. For someone used to working in a very social environment like a restaurant or bar and lives on their own, without income now will be experiencing far more disruption to their life.
Some of the more difficult emotions we are likely to experience at times may include boredom, frustration, loneliness, anxiety, depression and hopelessness. It is okay to feel any of these things at times and doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with you or that you are not coping.
Additionally at this time a lot of people will be experiencing loss and grief of different sorts. Many people have already lost their jobs, businesses have been closed or ended, weddings have had to be cancelled and many other plans have had to be at best postponed or are not going to happen. And sadly many people will be experiencing the loss of loved ones at this time which unfortunately looks only to increase.
Connecting with others
The most important thing to do through this to guard against loneliness is to continue connecting with others, with your friends, family and loved ones. This is particularly important for people living on their own. Because we cannot meet up in person this is going to be difficult, but fortunately we are alive in an age where we have the technology to communicate with each other and for most people who are reading this, the freedom to do so.
You might prefer talking over the phone or maybe texting is easier but also consider using video to connect with others. Communicating over video allows us to engage our sense of sight and have deeper connection than phone or text. It also allows us to connect in groups and that can be a very powerful way of supporting ourselves through adversity.
It might seem weird, awkward and even a bit frustrating at first. That's okay. Find what works for you. I would recommend at least trying things and finding out for yourself what it is like. The important thing is to recognise is that we need to make do with the resources that we have and social connection is a proven way of safeguarding our mental health.
Another important way to support yourself through this time is exercise. Exercise has been shown to be particularly effective in helping people manage stress and guard against sinking into deep depression. Currently in the UK it is also one of the few reasons you are allowed out of your home providing you stay away from others you don't live with so take advantage of that to get out of the house and spend some time in nature or a park.
In addition you can also exercise from home by doing yoga, pilaters, stretching, weights and some simple circuit training exercises. If you need a routine or are used to exercising in a class check out routines on YouTube and other social media sites. A lot of personal trainers and gyms are also running online classes that you can join in with so that may be a way you can exercise and also connect with others.
Creating a routine
The uncertainty and disruption this has caused to day to day life is vast and it can make us feel like everything is out of control and that we are in chaos. One way to help guard against this is to create a new routine for yourself to manage your time and help you feel and recognise that you do have some control over things.
You can use something like Google Calender to break up your time during the day into blocks for work, breaks, food, exercise fun activities, etc. This doesn’t have to be overly complicated or rigid and you may find that you prefer to do things at different times so allow it to be flexible. It can also be helpful to have a seperate routine for your weekend days to help you feel some continuity if that helps.
You can also use your routine to boundary the amount of time you spend on social media and the news. It's important to keep up to date with what is going on but after a certain point you will just end up overloading your mind with more information than is helpful to you. If you are finding yourself overwhelmed or hooked on the news, perhaps limit yourself to checking the news twice a day for 10-15 mins max.
Organising your space
In addition to organising your time to give you a routine, organising your space is also something you can do to help give you structure, some normalcy and a sense of control over things through this time. One way you can do this is to find different areas of your house for work, eating and doing other activities.
Obviously some people will have more space than others and for some living with others they won't have the luxury of being able to separate different activities into different rooms. If this is the case for you try and find ways that you can create boundaries for different activities. For instance, if you only have your room to do work in, work from a desk rather than on your bed if possible. Other ways of creating boundaries for your space can include turning your phone off and dressing as if you are going in to work when working.
Ironically for some too, particularly those living with families and children it might be difficult to be able to have time and space for yourselves. If this is the case try and find a part of the day where you can have some alone time if you find this helpful. Explain this to the others you live with as something that you need to support yourself if necessary. If you have a partner work out between you ways that you can manage things so that you have time to yourselves.
Boredom and frustration is likely to be felt during this time. Boredom is often a low level anger that we are wasting our time and life with something we don’t enjoy or find meaningful. One way you can channel these emotions to good use is putting the energy from them to help you create something. Many of us are so busy in our everyday lives that we rarely get a chance to do creative things like art, writing, playing an instrument so take this opportunity to do some of those things now.
Creativity is strongly linked to good mental health as it allows us to find different approaches through challenges and ways of making sense of them. By engaging in art you will develop your creativity, it's not an innate skill that is fixed but something that can be nurtured and developed like any other skill.
Get a project going, get lots of projects going
If you don't feel this or really don't enjoy art then find a project to do. Maybe it's fixing that door handle or assembling that bit of flat pack of furniture you always mean to get around to doing. Maybe it's learning a new language, coming up with a new business plan, learning how to code or creating a spreadsheet for your personal finances. It doesn't matter what it is as long as it's something either you will enjoy doing or will improve your life or someone else’s.
Remembering why this is important
One way you can help to support yourself through this period is to remember and remind yourself why this is necessary. The vast majority of us will survive having Corona Virus and will experience it with no symptoms or a mild to moderate disease. But for the elderly and those with underlying health issues this disease poses a much more serious threat to their health. Additionally, the health services are likely to be put under a lot of pressure and this will unfortunately affect people who get injured or are suffering other illnesses and diseases during this time.
Remember that everyone else is going through this too
This is going to be a difficult time for most people. People are probably going to be stressed and are likely to act unusually, lose their tempers more easily and at times be distant and acting irrationally. It's important to remember this and try not to take things personally if you are on the receiving end of someone’s reactivity. I’m not saying to not stand up for yourself or to tolerate the intolerable but rather that it is in our own interests as much as those around us for us to all slow down and work through this strange time with one another with as much compassion and understanding as possible.
Currently I am offering counselling sessions over the phone and online using webcam. If you are interested in finding out more about counselling or booking an initial counselling session email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text me on 07480 441993.