Managing your mental health during self-isolation
It is no question that we are all living in very difficult and uncertain times. Our regular way of life has dramatically shifted and we are all struggling to adapt to this “new normal”. Some of us are adapting well; working from home, maintaining a sense of order and routine, and generally appreciating the extra time with our loved ones.
But many others are finding it difficult to maintain any sense of normalcy during such an abnormal time. For that reason, it is extremely important to be very mindful of our mental health and wellbeing and to do our best to implement healthy strategies that can help us navigate these unchartered waters.
This blog article outlines some tools and strategies to use that will support your mental health during self-isolation by learning how to better manage daily challenges relating to working from home, anxiety, chronic pain, physical health and interpersonal connections.
Maintaining a Sense of Normalcy
With everything feeling like it is in a state of chaos and uncertainty, it becomes important to develop a routine and introduce tasks and activities into this routine that make us feel more in control and create a sense of normalcy.
At this time, any small task or activity will matter (as I always tell my patients, “the little things are actually the big things!”) Examples of this could be:
- making a cup of coffee every morning
- going out for a walk at a certain time of the day
- cooking meals
- watching your favorite TV shows
- playing a musical instrument
- listening to your favorite radio station.
You may not initially feel like doing any of these things, but if you challenge yourself to engage in these tasks anyway, you will more likely than not be able to develop a sense of calm, control and clarity.
How to successfully work from home
If you are working from home, it might feel difficult to stay focused, work at an optimal pace, or feel motivated. These are unprecedented times and we will all naturally feel more anxious, bored or restless. You may be doing less during the day, but heightened emotions can leave you feeling much more physically tired and earlier in the day.
As such, it becomes more important than ever to give yourself permission to work at less than your normal capacity, rest more and take more frequent breaks. During these breaks you might chose to do some light exercise, lie down, have a snack, go out for a short walk or stand by a window, on a balcony or in a backyard for a few minutes. No matter what you chose to do, remember, no self-judgement!
It is also important to try to maintain the same routines you had before, starting and finishing work around the same time, take time off for lunch around the same time and sitting at a desk or dining table as opposed to in bed. Resist the urge to stay in your pyjamas all day everyday or skip brushing your teeth!
Dealing with the kids
Speaking from personal and professional experience, self-isolating at home with young children can present many challenges. Like us, our children’s routine would have been suddenly disrupted, they no longer go to school or daycare and don’t see their friends or teachers, have regular outside time or engage in group play. This may lead to emotional or behavioral changes leaving children feeling irritated, tense or frustrated.
So, as parents, how do we help support our children through this? First and foremost, it becomes very important to talk to our children about what is happening without alarming them. We need to acknowledge and validate their feelings of boredom, sadness or confusion but also draw attention to all the things they have and can still do. Here’s what a conversation with your kids might sounds like:
“I know you cannot see your friends right now and that’s tough, but we can still go for a walk / drive / do a word search together/watch Netflix after dinner etc.”
If possible, speaking with their friends, teachers or daycare providers over video chat can also help your feel more socially connected.
Working from home while having to watch your children can also be additionally stressful as you find yourself pulled in many different directions at once; wanting to keep your children entertained and stimulated, prepare meals and focus on your work. I cannot stress enough how important it is to create a routine for them so that you have long enough stretches of time to get some work done and feel accomplished (which will also give you a sense of control). During this time, you can set your children up with activities or “homework” depending on their age. Check with your child’s school board and classroom teachers to get access to homeschooling curricula or suggestions for activities to complete at home. If you live with a partner or other adult family members, it becomes important to share childcare duties so you also have “adult only” time and are not taking it all upon yourself which will leave you feeling burnt out fast. Remember, some screen time is okay too, now is not the time to feel bad about it!
Maintaining your physical health
Introducing an exercise regimen, no matter how simple, into your daily routine will help boost and maintain your physical and mental health. Follow an online or live workout video or put your dance shoes on and dance to your favorite tunes! No matter what you do, do not feel that you must do something intense or very structured, any movement will get that blood pumping and those happy hormones going!
What’s amazing right now is how many people are stepping up and offering their unique services freely online. Whether it is a live yoga class on Instagram, an at-home fitness program on Youtube, or dance parties on Facebook, get online and take advantage of the offerings that your favourite social media accounts!
Managing Chronic Pain
Managing chronic pain while in self-isolation can be particularly challenging because, with other family members being at home, you may feel more compelled to take on more chores or help around the house.
Despite the urge to do more, make sure you still check in with yourself with respect to pain levels and ensure that you pace yourself when it comes to any physically demanding tasks.
Having your routine disrupted and having more people at home may also mean that you may feel less compelled to continue with exercises recommended to you by your health care provider. In an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy and not interrupt your treatment and recovery process, try your best to keep up with your exercises even if it means doing them at a different time of the day or on in a different part of the home.
Dealing with worried thoughts
So, despite all your efforts you still have moments when you feel anxious or overwhelmed? As mentioned before, expect these moments to happen as you try to adjust to this “new normal” and don’t judge them.
I like to suggest “worry time”, an intentional, specific time of the day when you can allow yourself to engage with stressful thoughts. If a worrying thought crosses your mind, acknowledge that it is there and needs to be processed but try to gently postpone it to a different time of the day (e.g. 7 pm) during which you can allow 15-20 minutes to worry.
This “worry time”will allow you to process all the worries that have come up for you during the day but contain them so that you are not in a constant state of worry throughout the day. Once your “worry time” is over, you essentially “reset” and can only go back to your worry thoughts at the same time the following day. If you can successfully postpone some of your worries, that means you that you are able to exercise some control over your worry as opposed to letting worry take over and control you. For more details on how to implement “worry time” as an anxiety management tool please see the following link:
Using a simple grounding tool can also be helpful in preventing your worry from spiralling out of control. As soon as you start to feel anxious or overwhelmed use this simple tool to interrupt your distressing thoughts:
- Look around the room for 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell (or like to smell)
- 1 emotion you feel, saying these things out loud.
As you might have noticed, this simple tool momentarily draws your attention away from your worry thoughts using your 5 senses. Feel free to repeat this exercise until you feel a little calmer or less anxious.
Incorporating guided meditations into your daily routine at a time of the day during which you are calm will enhance your ability to stay present and regulate your emotions at times when you are more anxious.
There are several apps that can be downloaded onto your phone which provide guided meditations, like Insight Timer and Calm. Our meditation teacher Louisa Mailis is also offering free live Instagram sessions that can help you implement a consistent mindfulness practice. Check out her Instagram profile at louisa_mailis.
Trying to remain calm is vitally important during this chaotic times and nothing can throw us into a threat response like watching the news! While it is important to stay informed by watching the news, it becomes hugely important not to allow yourself to be constantly bombarded by it which may exacerbate your overall sense of overwhelm and worry and consumed by the question on all of our minds, “when will all of this end?”. Allow yourself to read or watch the news once or twice a day and intentionally avoid it the rest of the time while focusing your attention on other more uplifting tasks.
Take some necessary “me time”
If you live with others and find that being constantly under one roof is causing more tension and interpersonal conflict, you are not alone!
With emotions running high and being in the same space all the time (without breaks) which is not what most are used to, there is more room for disagreement. One way to tackle this is to intentionally carve out “alone time” during the day where you do things by yourself or speak with friends or family members alone to create these much needed “breaks”.
Recognizing that we are ALL feeling more heightened at this time will also allow us to be more understanding and forgiving towards one another. Because of the mental and physical drain, it becomes important to recognize the importance of conserving our energy and allocating it only towards the most important things such as those connected to our health, safety and wellbeing; other things can and should wait.
Connect with supportive networks
I cannot stress enough how important it is to surround ourselves with people whom we trust and we find to be supportive. Introducing routine “check-ins” with family members, friends and neighbours can be important in keeping us connected to the outside world as well as highlight the fact that what we are going through is a collective experience affecting all of us, which will help normalize our experiences and make us feel less alone. Make a point to talk about things other than the pandemic by perhaps allowing 5 minutes to talk about tasks accomplished that day, meals that were prepared or TV shows that were interesting.
Talking over the phone is good but video conferencing adds another dynamic to the conversation because of the nonverbal aspect of human interaction which makes us feel more connected and creates an experience that is as close as possible to having a conversation in real life. If you are part of a friend or social group, or have a good relationship with colleagues from work, taking part in group video calls can be immensely helpful in maintaining a sense of belonging; think of it as virtual water cooler talk!
If you need emotional support or crisis intervention many therapists are able to provide therapy via phone or videoconferencing. For immediate support the Toronto Distress Centre provides free, anonymous counselling over the phone that is accessible 24/7. The Toronto Distress Centre can be reached by phone at (416) 408- 4357 or by text 45645.
Creating Opportunities for Feeling Joy
While finding happiness at a time like this might seem like a tall order, there is a lot of value in creating small opportunities to feel some joy and peace. No matter how brief or fleeting, these “feel good” moments can help enhance your mood and ability to get through this difficult time.
Some of the ways this can be done is through humor:
- watching funny videos or shows
- reading jokes
- playing boardgames
- looking through old photo albums
- creating something artistic
Another way to feel joy and peace can be in giving back and supporting others around us. For example, if your circumstances allow creating care packages for individuals who are lacking basic supplies and have difficulty accessing these supplies (e.g. elderly individuals, people who have recently lost their job and are in dire financial straits, the homeless). These care packages can include things like toiletries, sanitizing products and non-perishable food items.
Giving back can also be in the form of using a specific skill or area of expertise to support others remotely e.g. providing fitness/dance classes, counselling or life coaching, yoga, meditation or music lessons etc. No matter what you chose to do, remember that helping others by giving something of ourselves, especially at a time like this, will make us feel happier.
We all can do our best to be supportive of one another while trying to find meaningful ways to make the most of this time. Be calm, be patient, be mindful, and have fun.
Nada Elfeki, MSc, MEd,