As the government announces further social distancing measures, how should people maintain good mental health in long periods of self-isolation?
by Sophie Gallagher
As coronavirus continues to spread in the UK the government has implemented a lockdown on the country meaning all non-essential travel to be avoided.
The new measures have also seen pubs, restaurants and theatres close, while people have been asked to work from home where possible.
In other countries, like Italy and Spain, people are also confined to their homes in nationwide lockdowns, with police using drones to chastise people seen going outside.
A long period of isolation may well be a necessary measure for public health but it has been acknowledged that it could also have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a mental health guide for people who are self-isolating saying: “This time of crisis is generating stress in the population.”
So what should you do if your mental health is suffering during self-isolation; are there ways to ensure you safeguard your emotional and mental wellbeing during a potentially extended period of being alone?
Do make time for micro-lifts throughout your day
Dr Lucy Atcheson, a counselling psychologist, says that one of the main problems with self-isolation is that we start to miss “micro-lifts” that we normally have peppered throughout our day without even necessarily realising. She tells The Independent: “You’re on your way to work, you might pop into your favourite coffee shop or say hi to someone in the street, there are small little things throughout our day that help to lift us often without us even realising.
“When you’re alone at home that doesn’t happen – and the cumulative effect of that is massive, especially around the two-week mark. So instead we need to create micro-lifts, it has to be something that generates a sense of achievement. That might be a new exercise, learning a little bit of a language, talking to someone on FaceTime or joining a book group online.”
Do keep a healthy diet
When you’re at home it can be tempting to just sit on the sofa without moving, eating unbalanced meals and snacking all day as a way to entertain yourself.
But Emma Carrington, advice and information manager at Mental Health UK, says: “Do your best to eat well. If you haven’t got people who can bring food to you then see if you can sign up to home deliveries from your local supermarket.
“Have a look to see if there are any community support groups in your local area that can provide support with shopping.”
Engage with nature
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, says you should try to get exposure to the outside world and exercise as much as possible within the limits [Government advice now permits a once-daily exercise outside]. “Our physical health and mental health are linked so try to create a routine that includes some physical exercise,” he says.
“Although you can’t spend time with others, do make the most of any private outdoor space you have – such as a garden or balcony – if you have one, as being in nature can also help our wellbeing.”
Alternatively, Buckley also says try looking out of the window to watch the birds or tend to houseplants to keep your mind stimulated and engaged with nature. If you can, also open the window and let fresh air into your room.
Do maintain a sense of routine
Find yourself spending all day in your pyjamas or remembering at 3pm that you haven’t brushed your teeth because you knew you wouldn’t be seeing anyone? Although in the short term it can feel nice to be lazy, in the long term this isn’t going to be good for your mental wellbeing.
Carrington says: “As far as possible, try to maintain as much of a routine as you can. Wake up and go to bed at healthy times to ensure you get enough sleep.”
Although you want to maintain a routine, Dr Lucy Atcheson does warn against just falling into a cycle of sleeping, working, eating, and repeating: “Find some time to still have value to your day, life cannot be just eating and sleeping. Do something fun for yourself (that isn’t just Netflix).
“I’m seeing a lot of people who are self isolating are losing their optimism for the future, they are using time for self reflecting and picking apart everything that is wrong with their life: their job, their relationship, their friendships. When we’re overwhelmed by a mundane life, it can quickly draw out the joy, so make fun for yourself.”
Don’t just sit in front of a screen – vary your activities
Sitting in front of a screen all day – whether for work or pleasure – is not the best way to spend long periods of time. Especially because the blue light from devices, like smartphones, can be disruptive to your sleep and overall wellbeing.
Anxiety UK, a charity that helps people suffering with anxiety, has produced a list of self-isolation activities to diversify what you do at home in the coming weeks.
It suggests: downloading podcasts, watching box sets, doing arts and crafts, knitting, trying meditation, baking new foods, learning a new hobby like origami, skyping friends, FaceTime calls, cooking, writing, reading a book, doing DIY or gardening.
Do stay connected to people
‘I went through my child’s search history and there was coronavirus’
Just because you’re self-isolating, doesn’t mean you have to cut yourself off altogether, says Anxiety UK. “If you feel that you’re beginning to struggle, take some time to call a friend or family member. Talk about how you’re feeling. If you don’t have anyone you can speak to you can call emotional support lines like the Samaritans and SANEline.”
The WHO also recommends maintaining your social network during self-isolation: “Even when isolated, try as much as possible to keep your personal daily routines or create new routines. If health authorities have recommended limiting your physical social contact to contain the outbreak, you can stay connected via email, social media, video conference and telephone.”
Limit your news intake
If you are finding the constant 24/7 coverage of coronavirus is impacting your mental health, particularly on social media, then you can opt out. The World Health Organisation says: “A near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel anxious or distressed.
“Seek information updates and practical guidance at specific times during the day from health professionals and the WHO website and avoid listening to or following rumours that make you feel uncomfortable.”
Don’t get drawn into a negative spiral
Dr Lucy Atcheson says one of the most dangerous things for your mental health is having too much time to think about your life critically. She explains: “When self-isolating you’ve got a lot of time to think and it’s very common to experience massive life dissatisfaction as a result. You can start off the process feeling calm and not germaphobic but gradually you start to morph into this. You get into a constant flow of critiquing your life and yourself, and you really need to avoid those negative cognitive spirals.”
A spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation, a UK charity supporting those with mental health problems, says: “It will help to try and see it as a different period of time in your life, and not necessarily a bad one, even if you didn’t choose it. It will mean a different rhythm of life, a chance to be in touch with others in different ways than usual.”