Social distancing means we keep a physical distance from others, we don’t hang out as frequently, and we certainly don’t gather in groups. Though it doesn’t necessarily mean isolation, it can certainly feel like that, especially if you live alone. Even if you consider yourself an introvert, like me, being isolated from others for longer than we’re used to can lead to feelings of loneliness. It isn’t something that most of us have had to do before, so it might become more challenging as time goes on, and this can leave us feeling drained. Taking care of ourselves will involve creating boundaries, reaching out, and replenishing ourselves emotionally and physically. Here’s five ways you can do that:
BE PICKY WITH INFORMATION SOURCES
Especially when we’re isolated and living through a pandemic, it is important to stay as informed as we can about what is happening in the world right now, but watching news for hours on end may leave us more anxious than informed. Picking the most factual, scientific sources like the CDC or the WHO, may be the best use of our time and one of the best boundaries we can create for the coming months. As for news networks or social media, balancing intake time is important. You know how parents limit the time their kids spend in front of a screen? You may benefit from limiting the amount of time you spend in front of the news or scrolling through your various social media feeds. We only have so much energy in one day, and it takes a lot to cope with what we witness as this pandemic continues to unfold, especially if you or a loved one has been directly affected by COVID-19. Aside from the information about how we can keep safe, most of what we see in the news at any given time is about things we have no control over, so it can leave us feeling powerless, hopeless, and helpless. This leads me to the next point.
IDENTIFY WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
There’s this thing called “internal locus of control,” which refers to having the sense that you have some control over the stuff that happens in your life. People who have an “internal locus of control” tend to be more resilient. People who have an “external locus of control” –the feeling that you just don’t control anything and it’s all a roll of the dice– are more likely to develop anxiety. It’s important to balance these. Identify what you have control over vs what you don’t have control over. Things you control: your own behavior, your choices, what you do with your emotions, whether you say or do something encouraging/inspiring. Things you do NOT control: the behavior of others, what emotions you will feel at any given point. You control whether you wash your hands, and you control whether you encourage someone to wash theirs, but you don’t control whether they actually do it. This can be frustrating! Identifying what we do control can help us feel empowered and highlight our sense of agency, and having a sense of what things we do control can predict well-being. Drawing that distinction can also help shield against inappropriate guilt about what we can’t control. It can also allow us to feel whatever we feel about those things and free up space in our minds to focus on other things that we do control.
Stay connected with loved ones as much as possible through FaceTime, Discord, or another platform that allows you to see the person or group of people. Now more than ever it may be more helpful to hear the voice or see the facial expression of a friend. Though many people are cool with texting, there is something about the facial expressions and body language of the person talking to us that adds to our experience. Things in our brains called mirror neurons help us learn by observing others, help us understand other people’s actions, and play a role in empathy. For example, if you and a friend were walking along and someone comes up to you and does something rude, you may look at your friend’s expression and find that it reflects your own, thereby informing you that your feelings are probably a normal response to what just happened. These small but important validating gestures may prove even more meaningful when we socially distance ourselves.
WATCH YOUR PHYSICAL and MENTAL HEALTH
Continue your personal hygiene routine even if you don’t have to leave your home, even if nobody’s coming over, and even if nobody will see you. Continuing to engage in those time-consuming and sometimes boring routines even as we work from home can be beneficial to our mental health.
For most of us, social distancing is definitely stressful. Prolonged stress makes us more vulnerable because it impacts the immune system, making us more vulnerable to viruses and infections. Eat balanced meals if you can. Getting proper nutrition is very important, but it may be difficult for some, especially as many people are suddenly being let go. If you’re in a larger city there may be food banks, food drives, or local charity organizations you can go to. If you have state funded health care such as medicaid you may also obtain resources from your medicaid case worker. Community clinics or county hospitals may also have that information available.
While going to a gym at this time is not encouraged, there are other activities you can do at home to be physically active. There are some fitness experts who have been posting their routines along with tips (see here and here), and a lot of it is stuff that doesn’t require equipment. There are also many people who are creating online peer support groups to keep themselves accountable for their own physical exercise. If physical mobility is an issue, meditation and mindfulness are great tools at helping us become emotionally and cognitively strong. Mindfulness and meditation also help us manage our body’s stress response which tends to have a negative effect on our immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems over time.
Self-care includes being honest with yourself about your genuine feelings, even when they’re difficult. It’s hard to be away from others for prolonged periods of time. Acknowledgement of the hard or unpleasant emotions you might experience as time goes by is the first step in being able to process them, so that you can develop the skill of managing them effectively.
SLOW DOWN and REFLECT
This might seem counterintuitive, given you might have been physically alone all day, but take a few minutes at the end of your day to reflect and honestly check in with yourself. How are you truly feeling, both physically and emotionally? Be as honest and raw as you need. Hiding or withholding your unpleasant feelings over time may lead to taking damage to your immune system. If you have someone with whom you can reflect back and forth, that’s great, but what’s important is that these reflective moments happen. When we take moments to reflect, we are giving ourselves that space that we deserve to identify and analyze the events of the day, our triggers, what strengths or weaknesses we found in ourselves that day. The important thing is to do this without judgment. Being able to reflect your feelings to yourself is a great tool not only to cope with your feelings but to develop resilience that helps you through the difficult times. Create space for yourself in your day. Your health is worth it.
As we face ongoing social distancing it will be crucial to do extra things to take care of ourselves. Look to scientific sources to stay informed and balance out the time you spend on news and social media. You can feel empowered and gain resilience by focusing on stuff that you can control and exercising that control. Use the power of FaceTime/video chat to your advantage when connecting with others as much as you can. Mental and physical health go hand in hand, so it’s important to take care of both during times of prolonged isolation. Give yourself moments to reflect on your day to figure out what’s working for you and what isn’t, and to be honest with yourself about how you’re doing. Social distancing is going to be harder for some than for others, but even if you consider yourself an introvert, over time, it may lead to feeling lonely. If you stop carrying out your daily personal hygiene activities for days at a time, pay attention to that. If you’re finding it increasingly hard to continue engaging in your daily activities, sleeping well, or eating regular meals even if you have access to food, pay attention to that. If you find yourself feeling sad and lonely, constantly for days at a time, pay attention. If you’re experiencing several of these things for days at a time, it may be time to ask for help. TakeThis has a list of resources available. Remember, it’s ok to not be ok. Be kind to yourself, and be safe out there!
Dr. Morales is a licensed clinical psychologist in California and works in community mental health. Her areas of specialty include depression, anxiety, and trauma. She spends her free time watching anime and Asian dramas, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find her on Twitter @SuperSaiyanDrM.