As If Mending Socks, I Repair My Mind
Maintaining sanity amidst a pandemic.
Posted Mar 30, 2020
If the temperature outside is perfect, human beings do not need to work in order to avoid either freezing or getting a heat stroke. However, if temperatures are much higher or much lower than our bodies require, we need to take measures to protect ourselves.
As with warmth, so with social interaction. If the situation is such that with no extra work, we get all the co-mingling with other humans we need and no more, we don’t have to make a particular effort. If, on the other hand, we get much less or much more than we need, we ought to make adjustments. Thus, being thrust in an environment without privacy, e.g., having to share a room with thirty other people at all times, would require finding ways to be alone. We are currently facing the opposite type of problem: most people get much less social interaction than they need in order to stay mentally and physically healthy. The environment is inhospitable to our psyches in much the way extremely cold climates are inhospitable to our bodies.
But the environment can be managed. We can maintain our sanity if we make an effort. In what follows, I will make some suggestions.
1. Understand why the quarantine is necessary. Understanding is freedom.
This point is crucial, because, without understanding, the quarantine would feel involuntary. An involuntary quarantine will take a higher toll on you than voluntary quarantine.
Be less like a prisoner in solitary confinement and more like a long-term meditation practitioner who has chosen to live in isolation. (Even with understanding, quarantine is not exactly analogous to the solitary life of the meditator, because the meditator chooses isolation for its own sake, not as a means to a very different end. For you, on the other hand, quarantine probably has no intrinsic but not only instrumental value. Nonetheless, the analogy is suggestive.)
So why is the quarantine necessary? We currently have neither a vaccine nor a cure for COVID-19. If we do nothing, as many as 50% of the population can get infected and as many as 1.7 million people in the US alone may die (though this sounds grim, it may nonetheless be an underestimate). In addition, 24 million people may eventually require hospitalization according to CDC models. But the US has less than a million hospital beds, and if all 24 million people who may eventually become infected, get the virus at the same time, we’ll be 23 million beds short. The bigger the hospital bed shortage, the higher the death rate.
2. Understand what may happen to your body and brain. Understanding is control.
Knowing why something is happening to you and knowing what to expect can give you a sense of mastery, which in turn, can help counteract the negative impact of whatever you are going through. So what may happen?
The harms of the quarantine are cumulative. You likely felt perfectly fine the first day or few — and maybe, enjoyed staying home — but after a while, you may experience any of the following: listlessness, insomnia, poor concentration, poor work performance, irritability, anxiety, and depression.  Some people are at a higher risk of developing these symptoms. Quarantine is likely to be harder on extraverts, people who live alone, and people with underlying mental health problems.
These psychological effects can lead to poor physical health both directly — e.g., by increasing stress hormones in your body — and indirectly, by causing unhealthy behaviors such as eating junk food and being stationary. However, this does not have to happen. Just knowing why you feel the way you do will help, but you can do more. Which brings me to:
3. The good news: You can neutralize the adverse impact of quarantine.
You have to work on three key areas: physical health, connectedness, and a sense of agency. Here are a few tips:
Keep a healthy lifestyle. This is always important, but it is crucial now. Exercise regularly and eat healthy food. This boosts mood, according to research, in addition to having other health benefits.
Find new ways to connect. We are lucky to have the internet and other means of communication. Take advantage of that. For instance, if your work involves spending hours at a time in front of a computer screen, you can set up a call with a friend on Skype or Zoom, talk for a bit, and each of you can then begin working on his or her own project without ending the call. You two can focus on your respective assignments, but you will see each other. You can also take breaks together.
Consider setting up group calls and organizing joint activities. You need opportunities to laugh (is it me or has comedy suddenly gone downhill?) and bigger groups are merrier. You can engage in shared endeavors with friends remotely, for instance, you and your friends can each see a movie or hear a podcast episode, and you can meet on Zoom to talk about it.
You can do other things as well, e.g., pick a recipe and make a dish while on a call with a friend cooking the same dish. You two can compare notes at every step.
Or join a Meetup group. (The group does not even have to be near you since meetings will be online in the near future.) If you are doing this for the first time, you may wish to recruit one or two people you know to do it with you so that you are not meeting unknown people only.
Maintain control. One of the effects of isolation is a decreased sense of agency, of being a doer. This may lead to a lack of motivation and lethargy, which can easily turn into feelings of meaninglessness and depression. (You may then finally know what those existentialists are talking about, but this is not a good enough reason to give in!) It is crucial that you maintain a sense of control over your situation and avoid being a passive recipient of unpleasant events. Be an agent, not a patient. You can achieve this by redoubling the effort you put into your normal work activities, aiming to excel at what you previously did only decently, or by undertaking new projects such as taking remote drawing lessons, writing poetry, composing a song, or making art.
You can find new challenges too, for instance, you can enter an online puzzle contest. (You can work on a puzzle together with a friend and get two kinds of benefits.) NPR has a Sunday puzzle, and if you think you know the answer, you can submit it online. There are other puzzle contests online. You can even organize one.
Find what helps you relax. For instance, I myself love listening to the sound of the rainforest:
I also like documentaries about the history of the universe or of the Earth:
I find that adopting a point of view from which all of our troubles seem small is therapeutic. Other people get benefits from meditation practice (there are apps that can guide you through it) and outdoor activities such as gardening.
Art can heal. In a previous post, "Who Taught You All This, Doctor?" I talked about the possible therapeutic effect of pandemic-related fiction. That kind of fiction may or may not benefit you specifically, but if you think about it, you are likely to find that you know, intuitively, what sort of art you do need right now, much as you can tell what food you want by simply focusing on the question. (Just how we know these things is an interesting problem I will talk about in a future post.)
I, for instance, find that at the moment, I benefit from good art about resilience. There is a Japanese poet, Yoshiko Yoshino, who is currently 104 years old, and as you can imagine, has lived through a good deal, including WWII. She has a haiku that goes like this:
as if mending
socks, I repair my mind
and live on
 Brooks, S. et al., “The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce It" (2020). The Lancet, Volume 395, Issue 10227, pp.912-920. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673620304608.
 Ueda, M. (2003). Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women. New York, NY: Columbia University Press