How to Survive “Social Distancing” and “Shelter in Place”

The key is to do what we can to feel more like ourselves.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

 Yakobchuk Viacheslav/Shutterstock
Source: Yakobchuk Viacheslav/Shutterstock

As we remain stuck at home observing “social distancing” or “shelter in place” orders, many of us are suffering a reactive form of anxiety and depression. Although we may have a fair amount of anxiety concerning the potential health and financial impact of the virus, there is also an insidious loss that we are suffering. This is the loss of self-experience we suffer when we are unable to engage in our daily and weekly routines.

Self-experience is what we focus on when we are practicing mindfulness. When we are not practicing mindfulness, we aren't fully aware of our self-experience. This, of course, doesn’t mean we aren’t having the experiences, only that we are not paying attention to it. If we aren’t aware of our self-experiences, we might not be aware that we are suffering the loss of them, only that we are feeling out of sorts.

Routines Give Us a Sense of Self

We come to know our selves through our interactions with the various people and situations we encounter. Different experiences give us different self-experiences. Our routine experiences give us a sense of self-continuity as our reactions tend to be relatively consistent.

Engaging in different activities gives us different self-experiences. If we are not particularly athletic, we might experience ourselves as somewhat sheepish at the gym, even though we might be a ferocious competitor at work. The combination of self-experiences that makes up our days and weeks helps us feel like ourselves. Even when we feel consistently uneasy in a particular situation, the familiarity provides a form of comfort—we feel like ourselves.

Disrupted Routines Disrupt Our Sense of Self

We might not pay much attention to the cup of coffee we get at our favorite café on our daily trip into work (remember those?). And yet, when the café is closed, we feel out of sorts. Of course, there is always coffee somewhere, so we might find that we can quickly adjust to the change and get on with our day.

When we are unable to maintain most of our routines, we start to feel out of sorts—we suffer a loss of self. When the change to our routine has been abrupt and not of our own choosing, like the current social isolation, it can feel like a traumatic loss of self. 

The more significant the disruption, the greater the impact on our sense of self.

Traumatic Loss of Self

The loss of self that we are suffering at this time of social isolation is traumatic in scope and speed for many of us. Many describe the current situation as “surreal,” focusing on all the changes in the external world. If we are focused on our self-experience, we might say, “My experience of reality has changed to the point that I don’t recognize myself in it.” 

When change is slow, we might not notice the subtle shifts in our self-experience. Also, when we instigate the change ourselves, we are more likely to explain our discomfort as one of our own making, hoping to make a change for the better.

Though calls for “social distancing” and “shelter in place” are certainly for our own and the greater good, it is experienced by many of us as a swift and striking change to our daily lived experience—a change that is not of our choosing. The concomitant loss of self is destabilizing and thus traumatic. Moreover, the change is without a clear end in sight, leaving us to wonder what the rest of life might look like. Will this crisis ever end? Anxiety and/or depression and despair can quickly take hold.

Some of us have found ourselves staying up late in order to wake up later in the day, thus making the day seem shorter. This reversal of sleep patterns is a sign of depression and giving into it may eventually worsen depression—if we are wasting the day we will soon feel like we are wasting our lives.

Others of us have thrown ourselves into our work from home, holding onto the one aspect of life that allows us to feel normal. Although work is a great way to access our self-experience, working to the exclusion of all else may be a way to avoid being aware of the changes we are experiencing—this hidden stress eventually leads to burnout

How to Regain Our Sense of Self 

The best ways to regain a sense of self are to stick to our old routines as much as possible. When we can’t do those, we must develop new routines—they will soon feel familiar and give us a new sense of self-continuity.

Stick with Old Routines as Much as Possible

  • Do what makes us feel like ourselves. When possible, we should try to keep our old routines. For example: If taking a shower and getting dressed for work in the morning is important to feeling like ourselves, we should get dressed for work even if we are working remotely and no one will see us.
  • Keep to the schedule. Maintain the same schedule we had before the crisis. For example: If we used to work out after work, once our remote workday is over, we can do an online workout. 
  • Workarounds. The internet is abuzz with workarounds from “FaceTime dates” to “virtual happy hours” with coworkers over video chat. (Note: We need to be mindful of our alcohol consumption in this time of heightened stress.)

Make New Routines

  • Make a new schedule. If our old schedules don’t work, we need to make new ones and stick to them.
  • Do what makes us feel effective. In times like these when we don’t feel like we have many choices, it is imperative that we do things that make us feel effective—a great antidote to any sense of futility and helplessness. An instructor at a senior center calls her students to see how they are doing, giving her a sense of being useful. “I felt more like myself. That's what I do, I connect with people.”
  • Do the things you never had time for. Over the years, many of us have found ourselves wishing we had more time in our day. Now, we may feel we have too much. This too will come to an end. Use the extra time to read a book or spend time with your family, even if just on the phone. Treat this time as a valuable gift. It will soon be gone.

We always hear that self-care is important. It is equally crucial that we know the particular type of self-care we need. One type of self-care that is particular to us individually is what we can do to reestablish our sense of self-continuity to overcome the traumatic loss of self-experience brought on by “social distancing” and “shelter in place.”