Self-isolation can be a frightening and stressful time. You may be grappling with a COVID- 19 diagnosis or worrying about your loved ones' health. You might be concerned about how isolation will impact your mental health, family, and finances, and wondering what the future holds. At the same time, you are also probably navigating other losses, stressors, and challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what can you do to look after yourself throughout your self-isolation period?
First, let's take a look at the reason why dealing with self-isolation, and the COVID-19 pandemic more broadly, may be particularly challenging from a mental health point of view.
Meeting Our Fundamental Needs During COVID-19
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) theory says that human beings have universal needs, which when met, contribute to our sense of well-being.
The more fundamental needs are down the bottom, such as basic needs for food, water, shelter and safety. Next, there are psychological needs such as feeling a sense of belonging, connectedness and being respected. Then, at the top is the need for self-fulfilment and achieving our life goals and aspirations.
Self-isolation can threaten your ability to meet your needs which can, in turn, affect your sense of wellbeing.
Having or possibly being exposed to COVID-19 can make you feel unsafe, as you worry about your health and the health of those around you. Self-isolation can also cause some people to worry about job insecurity, and about accessing or affording essentials like food and housing. Social isolation also may stops you from accessing your normal coping strategies, pursuing the opportunities you value, or following through with plans that were important to you.
Both the pandemic and self-isolation can make it harder for you to fulfil your different needs and it's only natural to feel low, angry, worried, or overwhelmed at times.
When so much is out of our control, it can help to focus on the things you can do to build resilience and prepare to go the distance.
Here are 10 tips to help you through self-isolation:
Acknowledge your experiences
Acknowledge your own experience of how this pandemic and self-isolation have affected you. Self-isolation presents each person with their own set of hurdles, so try not to compare your situation to that of others, and focus on what you can do to get through this.
Give yourself permission to feel what you feel, without criticising yourself or minimising how you feel. Keep an eye out for thoughts like “I’m being weak, I shouldn’t be upset about this” or “It’s not a big deal, others have it worse than me”.
It is possible to maintain perspective and be empathic to the plight of others and acknowledge the difficulties of your own circumstances at the same time.
Identify and use your personal strengths
Each person has their unique strengths. Take a moment to reflect on what your strengths are, or on what others have told you they’ve noticed about you.
It might be a determined spirit, positive attitude, problem solving, creative thinking, sense of humour or resourcefulness. The list is endless.
While you haven’t lived through a pandemic before, you may have been through and coped with difficult times in the past.
What personal strengths helped you then, or what could you muster up now to face these challenges?
You can play to the strengths you already have, or cultivate some new ones to help you encounter this marathon’s unexpected twists and turns.
Build or maintain your resilience by taking extra care of your body
Having your energy tank be as full as possible will help you get through this difficult time, so make sure that you top it up regularly. Here's how:
Try to create and maintain a positive routine of healthy eating, good sleep, and adequate exercise, all of which provide the essential fuel for both your body and mind.
Seek medical attention early for any health concerns, coronavirus-related or otherwise. If you have chronic physical or mental health issues, continue to treat them via telehealth if possible.
Don't forget to move. Physical activity can be a valuable tool to help you remain calm and continue to maximise your health during this time.
Be mindful of alcohol and drugs, which might provide a temporary sense of relief, but if taken to excess, could create more problems for you.
Take care of yourself so you can care for others. If you ignore your own needs, you risk burning out.
Keep stress at bay in helpful ways
Being in isolation can feel overwhelming, and if you've been diagnosed with the coronavirus, thinking too far ahead or wondering when it will end may make it harder to keep going.
Here's what you can do instead:
Focus on just getting to the next bit - like getting through one day at a time, or breaking up tasks into smaller and more manageable parts.
Keep your thoughts in check and challenge them so you can think in a more balanced, realistic and helpful way.
Structure your daily activities to give yourself a break from worry and shift your attention to something else.
If you're stressed about a problem that can be fixed, don't delay taking manageable steps to address it. Putting things off tends to make anxiety worse.
Create opportunities to experience positive emotions
It’s natural for your mood to dip at different points throughout isolation. To prevent negativity from spiralling further, you can level out your mood by deliberately finding ways to increase positive emotions.
Every day, plan, schedule and make sure you do:
at least one activity that is fun, pleasurable, relaxing or enjoyable, AND
at least one activity that gives you a sense of productivity, achievement, meaning or satisfaction
It doesn't matter how big or small these activities are, the important thing is that they bring you a sense of joy - even for a few minutes.
Isolation has probably gotten in the way of you doing the things you usually do. If you can, be flexible and creative in finding alternatives. This will help boost your mood so that you can persevere more easily.
Keep an eye on what you watch, read, and follow
It’s worrying to read statistics of infections, deaths, and outbreaks. It’s distressing to see global images of sick people, overrun hospitals, and coffins. And it's tiring to be bombarded with people's arguments and opinions on social media.
There are two extremes of managing your exposure to the media, both of which can be unhelpful in the long run: avoiding the media altogether or checking for news obsessively.
Instead, try to strike a balance where you consume enough so you can keep up-to-date, follow health advice, and modify your plans if needed, but not so much that you feel completely drained and overwhelmed every time you turn on the TV or pick up your phone.
Balance what you think and talk about
Similarly, try to strike a balance between acknowledging the current reality of living in isolation and focusing on other important or meaningful aspects of your life.
It’s normal to think and talk about COVID-19 a lot, especially when you're stuck in your home or a hotel, but try not to let it consume your thoughts or dominate all of your social interactions. Consciously shifting your thoughts and focusing on other things can help you stay level headed and preserve a feeling of normality.
Stay connected and continue to strengthen your relationships
It’s natural to grieve the lost freedom to socialise, hang out, and see our loved ones face-to-face. Here are some things you can do to cope with these losses so that you can keep going:
If you are isolating with others, invest in strengthening relationships within your household. Spend quality time with the people you live with, plan enjoyable activities, and do what you can to take your mind off the difficulties you are all facing.
Keep in touch via phone and video calls, regularly. Even if you aren’t feeling particularly lonely, having regular contact with others can prevent you from feeling vulnerable to isolation.
Be creative in how you socialise. Have a video call with one friend, write letters to another, and organise group trivia or a virtual games night with family.
Take extra good care of yourself while in lockdown
No matter how long you have to isolate for, not being able to leave your home or a hotel room can be incredibly challenging.
Be kind and compassionate with yourself and those you live with. If you are living alone, staying connected is even more crucial. Take one day at a time, or even one hour at a time when the going gets tough.
Experiment with different strategies and keep doing what works well for you and your household. It is especially important that you invest in your mental health.
Cheer yourself on, but reach out for support when you need to
It's important to be kind and to cheer yourself on as you continue to endure this incredibly challenging and uncertain time.
Look for small wins each day, like tasks you’ve achieved or tricky situations you got through. Give yourself praise, reassurance, and encouragement regularly.
However, be honest with yourself if you’re struggling. No one is supposed to tough this out on their own, so if you need a bit of a boost, don't delay reaching out for some support. It can be a bit easier to keep going when others are alongside you.
Share how you feel with a family member, friend, colleague, your GP or a mental health clinician, and do this early on so that you don't run out of steam on your own.
To access additional tools for coping with stress and anxiety during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the This Way Up website at https://thiswayup.org.au/covid-19/
This article is Copyright © THIS WAY UP, St Vincent's Hospital Sydney Limited. THIS WAY UP is a trusted Australian provider of evidence-based, internet-delivered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (iCBT) programs.
As a not-for-profit and joint initiative of St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of New South Wales, its mission is to reduce the burden of mental illness by providing accessible online treatment for anxiety disorders and related mental health conditions.
THIS WAY UP is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing under the Telephone Counselling, Self Help and Web-Based Support Programs.
If you feel you need more support coping with self-isolation, the Sonder team is here for you at all times of day or night. We can refer you to appropriate services including a range of scientifically supported online courses from THIS WAY UP. These courses normally come at a cost, but if you receive a referral through one of our team, they're free.