11 Expert-Backed Ways to Manage Your Mental Health While Self-Isolating
Self-isolating can damage your mental health. Here's an expert guide to self-quarantining the healthy way.
For many Americans, life as we know it has dramatically changed in the last 48 hours. On Monday, California announced a full lockdown of the Bay Area, and other parts of the U.S. are shutting down schools, bars, movie theaters, and restaurants. Social distancing and staying home have become necessary measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, but self-isolating can potentially damage your mental health, especially if—as some experts predict—this new way of life stretches for weeks or even months.
"Loneliness is a real problem, and it leads to negative thoughts, aggression, reactive behavior, losing touch with reality, cardiovascular disease, depression, and so on," says psychologist Matt Grzesiak, PhD, the creator of the Mixed Mental Arts model.
Some people experience as much anxiety from being alone as those with social anxiety experience when in a crowded room. But whether or not you're an introvert or extrovert, self-isolating can have insidious effects on your well-being. "It doesn't really matter if someone enjoys being alone or not," Grzesiak explains. "They're still going to get the negative effects of loneliness."
"Also, the coronavirus has created what's known as 'anticipatory fear,' which means we're afraid that something bad is going to happen, but we don't really know what," he says. "And it's been proven that people suffer more being afraid of the unknown than when they know what's going to happen."
But the worst thing we can do, according to Grzesiak, is "just waking up at 2 p.m. every day in our pajamas not knowing what we're doing or what's going to happen and falling into the trap of being passive and reactive and just waiting for this to be over or for our lives to be taken."
To make sure you avoid falling into that trap, here are some tips from experts on how to maintain your mental well-being while self-isolating and quarantining.
Create a new routine.
"Humans are habitual creatures, so being pulled out of a routine automatically pulls us out of our comfort zone and creates anxiety," Grzesiak says. As such, it's crucial to not just wake up every morning and wing it or hope for the best, because a lot of anxiety comes from feeling a lack of control over your life.
To maintain a sense of control, it's important to create a new routine. You can even potentially turn your anxiety into excitement by seeing it as an opportunity to make some long-awaited changes.
Or modify your existing one.
You can also modify your old routine. Perhaps doing a yoga class at noon every day was a crucial part of managing your anxiety or stress levels, and losing that by self-isolating is panic-inducing. Many instructors are doing online classes now via Zoom, so talk to your instructor about that possibility.
Reexamine your habits.
"This is a great time to examine habits in general, and to figure out what about those habits gives you the comfort that you need," says Omri Kleinberger, a holistic wellness expert and founder of Ometa.
You might realize, for example, that going to work, hitting the gym afterwards, and coming home and watching TV before falling asleep was a routine that wasn't really making you happy. This is an opportunity to create new habits, like going out for a walk every morning, eating lunch on your balcony, practicing guitar every night after work, or meditating before going to bed.
Reach out to people.
If you go days without talking to anyone, you might find yourself slowly slipping into a depression without even realizing it. "It doesn't matter if you're an introvert or not, humans are social animals," Gresziak says. So FaceTime your friends or your family or even your colleagues, or use social media to your advantage—whatever you can do to stay feeling connected to others.
When you think about it, quarantining may give us more ways to virtually connect than ever before. Instead of being physically together but on our phones, we now can't be physically together, but we're actually communicating via our phones, screens, and more.
And take your favorite activities online.
Companies are already springing to help with that. Dating company Here/Now is now hosting "virtual singles events" in which you can drink wine in your apartment with a curated group of fellow self-isolated singles.
You can also take your TV nights online with Netflix Party, which adds video playback and group chat so you can watch shows with your friends without being in the same room together.
Check in with your emotions every few hours.
Gresziak suggests taking stock of how you feel every few hours and "doing something nice for yourself and your body," whether it's by doing a few jumping jacks, going for a run in a non-crowded area, simply saying an affirmation, or opening up your windows to let some fresh air in.
Take time to appreciate what you have.
According to the Yale Happiness Course, research has shown that taking time out to recognize and experience what you have in life can boost your mood, lower your stress levels, strengthen your immune system, feel a stronger social connection, and lower your blood pressure. This could be a good opportunity to do a daily gratitude exercise in which you make a list of what you still have as opposed to what you've lost by self-isolating.
Make a list of your fears.
Gresziak also recommends making a list of your fears. "Ask yourself what specifically you are afraid of, because then you can question those thoughts," he says. "If, for example, it's dying from the coronavirus, you can then examine the probability of that actually happening. If you're afraid of being alone, you can then find solutions to that. If you pinpoint what you are afraid of, you can confront that specific fear."
Don't binge TV shows.
This might seem like a great time to spend the entire day on your couch watching endless episodes of The Real Housewives. But that's a really easy way to slowly slip into a deep depression.
The same goes for watching the news all day, which can supply an "onslaught of repetitive info" that throws you into a bad headspace, Kleinberger says.
Furthermore, with all the gyms and restaurants closed and the liquor stores open, it can be easy for one drink home alone to turn into two or three or four, and before you know it, you'll have alcoholism to grapple with once this is all over. More than ever, mindfulness and moderation is key in all of your habits, drinking and beyond.
"It would be horrible if people used this period against themselves," Gresziak says. "We overestimate how much we enjoy pleasure. Pleasure is not that pleasurable in the long run. It's fun to have a drink but not to get drunk. It's fun to spend one day binge-watching Netflix, but, after a week, you probably won't like seeing yourself in the mirror. Balance is key."
Know you're not alone.
Loneliness isn't about being alone so much as feeling alone. Kleinberger says that it's important to remember that "this will pass, and we're all in it together. Everyone is going through a similar thing, so there's plenty to connect and empathize over."
Yes, things will change, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt," Gresziak says. "And I hope that we adapt in a clever way that actually propels humanity forward."