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Survive Social Distancing With Your Mental Wellness Intact

Social isolation is ... isolating. Here are 10 tips to weather the worst of it.

After a few days of “social distancing,” my closets are organized with everything in my house labeled. My living room is entirely covered in sheets to make a “Bad-Guys-Only Fort” to entertain my toddler. And the reality of working from home is sinking in. There are many great resources for managing anxiety out there, but this is a list I created based on what is helping me adjust right now.

Source: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
We are social creatures. We thrive in community. This makes the current call for social distancing quite challenging.
Source: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

I want to acknowledge that many people are struggling with very real health and economic stressors right now. This piece doesn’t address those issues, not because they aren’t hugely important, but because I’m privileged to be writing from my own experience in which my main hardship (so far) has been adjusting to changes to help “flatten the curve.” As a good friend said to me this morning: “Social isolation is ... isolating.”

We are social creatures. We thrive in a community. And we like to know what to expect. This makes the current call for social distancing quite challenging. Here’s what I’m learning so far.

1. Call people. Yes, actually call. Not text. A little human connection, even just voice contact, goes a long way.

2. Set a schedule for yourself. One that includes getting dressed. Give yourself a few “snow days” to enjoy Netflix and lounging, and then set up some routines. It’s tempting to stay in bed if you can, but this is a good way to quickly turn “social distancing” into “stay-at-home depression.”

3. Get outside. Daily. Move your body.

4. Quarantine the Internet. Set some limits on your media exposure to protect your mental health. I understand the urge to constantly seek updates, but a few minutes (or even hours) of a news break could be the healthiest thing right now. Plus, setting these boundaries will create time and energy for activities that help you feel calmer: baking, reading (a real book!), playing music, or journaling.

5. Actively notice what parts of your identity are threatened by these changes. And then be compassionate and patient as you struggle with this. Are you a busy friend with a bustling community? Pulling back from socialization may cause loneliness. Are you a therapist finding it harder than usual to connect with clients via screens? Feeling less competent may cause anxiety.

Are you a parent who savors long weekends with your kids? Staying home with them 24/7 will cause you to feel impatient. Notice what changes social distancing is creating to your sense of self, and be patient and kind as you adapt. Communicate this aloud to a trusted friend or journal about it. Get it out of your head.

6. Acknowledge that we are not wired for ambiguity. As a species, we like to know what to expect. The uncertainty we’re facing now is deeply uncomfortable. There’s just no way around that. All we can do is accept that it’s hard and ride it out. See above regarding schedules. Routines help create a sense of control—maybe I don’t know what’s going to happen on a global epidemic level, but I know I’m eating lunch at noon.

7. Discuss your boundaries and needs in your living space. Be kind and be direct. This is not a time to be subtle about your needs.

Most couples, families, and roommates rely on time away from each other to give their relationships the oxygen they need to survive. Now we need to intentionally communicate and get creative about finding this space (even if figurative—“we can be in the same room while you listen to podcasts in your headphones. That’s ideal because I‘d strongly prefer not to be talked to while I work on my puzzle”).

8. Allow yourself to grieve the changes, the canceled trips and plans, and then work to find a silver lining each day. It might be small. I’m deeply disappointed to have canceled a trip to visit a friend this weekend, but I am grateful for wearing yoga pants all week long. It can be helpful to look online and see the stories of people helping each other out. Find ways to celebrate happy moments and the collective sense of taking care of one another right now. Remind yourself that by making sacrifices, you are part of a community that is protecting the most vulnerable among us.

9. It’s OK to be anxious. There is a reason this is being referred to as a “crisis.” As a society, we often avoid stillness, using busyness as a culturally-approved numbing technique. Slowing down, stepping back from constant hustle, and taking a break from busyness is uncomfortable. You’re going to feel your feelings. That’s OK.

10. Breathe in, breathe out, repeat. Take it one day at a time.

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