Maintaining Mental Health in Isolation

I can imagine a lot of people who aren’t used to self-isolating and being stuck at home are really struggling with the Covid-19 lockdowns. I can also imagine people who were already quite isolated before finding the increased restrictions even more alienating, me being one of them.

Humans are social creatures. The abilities to love and care for each other, pass on important information, and share food and shelter in times of need is a part of our evolution and part of why we’ve thrived as a species. It’s hardwired into our survival instinct to seek out these relationships, and it’s a natural reaction for us to begin to feel down when we aren’t getting our needs met.

There’s a reason why solitary confinement in prison is considered one of the cruelest types of punishment. It goes against one of our most basic and primal biological needs and can cause serious long-term mental and emotional damage.

Of course, self-isolating in your home, with access to high speed wifi, an iPhone, Netflix, and a fridge full of food, is not exactly the same as being in prison. But restricting contact and normal interactions does effect us in a similar way if we aren’t careful. As someone who’s been quite severely agoraphobic for the past 7 or 8 months, I have experienced it personally.

I do feel that, as I recover, I have reached a routine which allows me to keep my head above the water and not drown in the isolation and lack of social contact. Whilst it isn’t the ideal situation, there are some key things which help.

One that is mentioned everywhere is meditation and mindfulness. People really seem to bang on about it, often without actually understanding it themselves. When you’re going through a mental health or spiritual crisis, having someone who has no idea what you’re going through, telling you ‘just meditate’, as if it’s an instant cure for all your problems, is ignorant and in some cases dangerous.

For a long time, on and off, I tried meditation on the advice of countless doctors, articles, therapists, you name it. No one explained meditation in any detail, and it led me to believe I was completely hopeless. If meditation was my last and only resort, I’d tried and failed. It was only when I found a book called ‘The Mind Illuminated’ that I started to understand it was a skill and a process, something that needed to be taught and learned.

Illustration inspired by ‘The Mind Illuminated’

More detail of the book can be found in my other blog post, but basically it teaches the reader how to meditate from a complete novice level, all the way through to reaching a stage akin to enlightenment or awakening. Without this book, I would of gained almost nothing from meditation. With it, I’m transforming my mind, shedding the many negative thought and behavior patterns I’ve carried most of my life, and most importantly, surviving and maintaining my mental health.

Keeping a routine is also key. Without at least a rough plan for the day, I found myself not wanting to move from bed, overthinking, and having pretty bad insomnia. Just having an intention and a basic set of things you do to get your day going is hugely important. It’s a cliché, but as well as being social creatures, we are also creatures of habit. By making these habits positive, we gain momentum in the right direction which keeps us out of a slump.

As an example, I’ll try to keep a pretty regular time of waking and going to bed. I strongly recommend making your waking hours sometime not too far away from sunrise and your sleeping hours when it’s dark. On waking, I’ll always exercise, meditate, cold shower, and have something to eat; these are all a given and I do them automatically now. After this, I’ll have times set aside for things like writing, working, hobbies, and exercising (again). We only have a certain amount of willpower and by setting a routine it means we don’t use this up on accomplishing simple things, and can save it for the important, more difficult stuff.

Finally, making a conscious effort to check in with people, is something I can easily forget to do if not careful. With social media we often think we’re connected and in contact, but it is often a very cold and impersonal way of communicating. By taking the time to call, Facetime, Skype, or message one-on-one with loved ones, we are able to hold space for each other and really communicate. I often feel like something is missing which I can’t quite put my finger on until I have a good chat with my friend or sister.

There’s a lot more you can do to maintain good mental health, or dig yourself out of a hole. These are just the things that I feel are not always made clear and often taken for granted. It’s taken me a while to figure out what I need to keep myself out of a dark place, but now I know, I feel much stronger, more positive, and able to handle the strain of the quarantine.

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