Many of us are wondering just how we’re going to cope with social distancing for an indefinite period of time while the COVID-19 virus runs its course. We know that the best things we can do, for our own health and the health of our communities, are to practice good hygiene and to stay home as much as possible. Avoiding unnecessary contact with other people will help slow the spread of the virus and save lives. But it can involve some health risks of its own, like social isolation.
“It’s very predictable that people are going to feel more socially isolated when they’re socially distanced,” says Valerie Reyna, PhD, a psychologist who studies risk and decision-making at Cornell University. “That just goes with the territory. And a lot of research has shown that connection to other people is so important for mental health and for physical health.”
So how can you protect your sanity when many of the usual tools for dealing with stress — like getting together with friends or going to the gym — aren’t on the list of options? Having a good self-care strategy is key. Here are some things you can do from home:
This is the time to use all our available tools to stay connected to each other in the absence of physical get-togethers. And the most obvious way to stay connected under these conditions is with social media.
“We live in a wonderful age of technology,” Reyna says. “For all the problems that social media and other technology create, they also create opportunities to connect to other people, and we’re now trying to take advantage of that.”
We can use social platforms to see how people are doing, to share encouraging news, to invite friends to virtual chats or online hangout groups. They can help keep us in the know about what’s happening in our local communities and how we can help out.
The drawback of social media is that these forums can also quickly become sources of stressful news if we linger there too long. So this is also an excellent time to dust off old ways of connecting, like the personal phone call. Hearing the voices of our friends and loved ones — or seeing actual faces, with FaceTime — goes even further toward offsetting feelings of isolation.
And if you want to get really old school, bust out some cards or paper and start writing notes to your friends and family. They don’t have to be poetry; just a little thinking-of-you note will do. It’s a thoughtful way to pass something from hand to hand that reinforces our positive connection. (Once upon a time people misted their love letters with perfume. Today we might want to spritz ours with a little hand sanitizer before dropping them in the mailbox.)
At least from the constant flow of news. Though it is critical to stay informed about the status of the viral spread, as well as what our communities need from us in terms of social distancing and other behaviors for the public good, it is likely you can get all the news you need in an hour a day or less. Check news sources in the morning and evening, and then shut it down. Bathing in frightening information will not help the virus run its course any faster, and it will keep you in a chronically enervated state that can affect sleep patterns, mood, and general mental health. Use this time to foster positive emotions, thoughts, and connections as much as possible.
(For more on how and why to cultivate positive emotions, check out this piece on how to awaken joy in stressful times.)
Give yourself a schedule.
While it might be tempting to abandon your alarm clock and regular mealtimes, maintaining a regular routine is actually key to supporting your mental and physical health. Regular sleep and wake times, as well as regular mealtimes, help keep our body’s many “organ clocks” in sync and operating at peak function. This means better digestion and better sleep quality, both of which are vital to maintaining a steady outlook and strong immunity in tough times. (Read more about circadian health here.)
Be of service.
Although this outbreak is affecting all of us, we are not all equally affected. Be aware of the elders and the homeless in your neighborhood. If you are still employed and have the means to share, you can donate cash to the local food shelf, bring groceries to an elderly neighbor to leave on their doorstep, or buy an online gift card for your favorite restaurant or small business while they’re closed. We all have the power to lessen the negative impact of this period, and helping out is a guaranteed spirit lifter. There’s research to back this up. One brain-imaging study offered participants $128 in cash and the chance to keep it all themselves or donate some of it to charity. In those who chose to donate, the brain’s pleasure center lit up like the Las Vegas strip. This pro-social phenomenon is sometimes called “helper’s high.”
Staying at home doesn’t have to mean sitting still. Plenty of studios and gyms are offering free online classes, both live and recorded. Body-weight exercises, backyard workouts, your own yoga practice . . . all are still available right now. So are long walks and hikes in nature. (Just keep at least six feet away from anyone you encounter to protect both of you.) Stick to your regular workout schedule if you can (see above for the value of keeping a routine), and don’t be afraid to try new things to keep yourself engaged. Here are some great virtual workout classes to try.
Most people in the United States are chronically underslept. With the notable exception of those who are now heroically working overtime to make sure we have healthcare, food, and other essential services, many of us have the chance to get more sleep than we normally do. Take advantage. Sleep supports your immune system, mental health, and overall well-being in too many ways to count. Read more on the healing power of sleep here.
There is a shocking amount of free education available virtually, and studying something interesting is a far less stressful and more satisfying use of brainpower than reading the same scary news articles over and over. The site Open Culture, for example, offers free access to hundreds of books, lectures, online classes — even museum coloring books whose pages you can print out and have a go at. On that note, you can also take a virtual tour of any number of world-class museums and gaze upon beautiful artworks for as long as you like. If you’re a reader, this is also a great time to tackle the classics. (I just joined a virtual book group on Twitter to read War and Peace with the great writer Yiyun Li, if you’d like to join me.)
Is there an art form you abandoned when you started to work for a living? Do you have a guitar or an accordion gathering dust? How about a sewing machine or a set of paints? Maybe a book you’ve been wanting to start (or finish) writing? If you’re the least bit creatively inclined, take advantage of the positive health effects of getting into a state of “flow”: that blissful concentration that creative practices can offer. (Learn more about the benefits of flow states here.) And if you can take that guitar to the garage and really whale on it, so much the better.
Card games, word games, board games . . . in person or online. Games are another great way to foster connection with others and occupy your attention with something fun.
Clean and declutter.
If you’ve been putting off cleaning out the garage or the basement or organizing your desk, now’s the time. It will make your space more comfortable and offer you a feeling of accomplishment, which might be harder to come by as we adjust to new or absent work schedules. For professional advice on how to clean out and remake your closet, home office, laundry room, and more, see our “Order out of Chaos” series.
Stillness and self-reflection are not exactly signature American pastimes, but we all benefit from knowing ourselves a little better. Mindfulness reduces reactivity and increases resilience, which is essential to getting through difficult times with your spirit intact. A meditation practice can be an excellent tool for this, because it helps you get to know your mind’s habitual stories as well as ways to settle yourself down when those stories are running you. There are multiple online meditation classes and wisdom talks available online (see tarabrach.com for really good guidance on mindfulness practice). That said, if you’ve tried meditation and know it’s not your thing — or it increases rumination, which is not helpful right now — here are some good tips on alternatives to meditation that will offer you the same serenity-enhancing benefits.
This suggestion may sound like some crazy Pollyanna hogwash, but according to Richard Davidson, PhD, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it’s a powerful life skill. He lists a positive outlook along with three other traits — resilience, focus, and generosity — as skills that can markedly improve our quality of life during good times and bad. (Read more on those here.)
What does a positive outlook look like right now? There is no use minimizing the seriousness of the current outbreak; it is real, and social distancing is how we save lives. So try focusing on how just by staying home you are helping to save people. Revel in the good feeling of being of service, when and how you can. Connect more deeply with the loved ones you live with. Relish the chance, at long last, to take a nap.
Finally, history suggests that every virus, even the worst of them, eventually runs its course. So who do you want to be when this is over? You get to decide. You get to build that person, every day. And the one thing we all know — the thing that makes this moment so overwhelming but also so powerful — is that not one of us is going through this alone. Like never before, we are really, truly, in this together.