6 Lessons Learned in Isolation That Are Keeping Me Sane(ish)

All this time alone amid the coronavirus pandemic has been enlightening.

I used to look around my apartment wondering how long I could stay sane if stuck there for awhile. How would I occupy myself? With all the various entertainment options, not to mention all that time to work on myself, how hard could it really be?

Sure, living alone would make it difficult, but I had always been pretty good at being alone. Perhaps a forced period of isolation was even what I needed, I decided.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has called my bluff, and it has been…a lot to process, to say the least. And while all this time alone in my apartment has been harder than my fantasies led me to believe, because of course it has, it has been also full of lessons learned, or in many cases relearned. Here are some that are keeping me sane(ish) in these unprecedented times.

  1. Caution Is Useful, Worry Is Useless

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    Even during “normal” times, I wrestle with an overly anxious mind. The catastrophic thinking so many have been newly experiencing is familiar to me, and my denial took little time to progress to panic, before calming down to, mostly, acceptance.

    While I have to stay more tied to the news than the average person as a result of what I do for a living, I am making a point to not obsess over it. I remind myself that I’m staying informed and doing the best I can to not get sick and contribute to the spread of the virus, which is more or less all anyone not on the front lines can do right now.

  2. Don’t Take Your Own Thoughts as Gospel

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    When you suffer from more anxiety than is adaptive, you’re forced to learn the necessary coping technique of talking yourself down. As difficult as it is in times of stress and heightened emotions, you have to learn to put space between your thoughts and actions, and to lawyer those thoughts, so to speak. It is important to determine if you have enough evidence to draw the negative conclusions your hyperactive brain is considering to be somewhere in the range of very likely to happen to absolutely guaranteed, if not already secretly occurring.

    Meditation has proven to be a useful tool, not only for lowering stress but also for paying attention to how your thought process works, without judgment, so as to become more familiar with your brain’s patterns and biases.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has also been shown in studies to be effective in calming anxiety, working through traumatic experiences, and treating some addiction issues. That too could be a useful practice for those struggling to move toward acceptance during this upsetting time.

  3. Schedules Help Bring Order to the Chaos

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    During the first week or two of practicing social distancing it became clear I needed to start following a schedule, and even more so that I had no interest in following a schedule. In fact, following a schedule seemed futile, arbitrary, and somehow authoritarian. After all, weren’t we all going through enough without also being tied to the clock?!

    But eventually the inevitable happened: All that flexible thinking, increasingly letting my mood take more control of the day’s plans, while they slowly blurred into one another, began making me feel even more trapped. I felt more out of control, and therefore more controlled by the situation.

    Truthfully, this is still something of a struggle. But when I do manage to stay true to a schedule I have noticeably better days. When I fall short, I try to have empathy for myself.

  4. Patience and Kindness Are Necessary Strengths

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    Patience and kindness take a certain type of strength that seems to make us uncomfortable at times. I have seen both read as weaknesses, not only in the heteronormative and masculine world I grew up in, but also in the quick-to-read-for-filth, hot-take-dispensing world I have often found myself inhabiting during adulthood. I have been guilty of participating in that harsh way of looking at and responding to others at times, and it never feels good or strengthening.

    The truth is, life is always full of enough suffering and adversity that defaulting to empathy, as difficult as it can often be, is always the right move. It’s an even more important way to live now, as we all struggle to adapt to a more uncertain future, and at times all too tragic present. It is equally important to have patience for yourself, which will in turn make you more patient with others.

    Not to mention, when you’re forced to spend this much time alone with your thoughts the guilt of speaking out of negative emotions, and of assuming the worst in others, is going to be harder to chase away.

  5. Strengthen the Social Bonds That Count and Let Others Go

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    While there’s no substitute for being in person with someone, technology allows us to connect and communicate in ways that can lessen our feelings of loneliness.

    In some ways I’ve become more social as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been reaching out to more friends with greater regularity, including some I hadn’t talked to in a year or more, have rediscovered FaceTime and Zoom, and have started asking people how they’re doing not as a pleasantry or conversation starter but because I truly want to know.

    This is also a great time to focus on helping others, which will also help your own mental state. Whether that’s buying groceries for elderly neighbors, giving to those suffering financial hardships due to lost income, or just offering a sympathetic ear, there are countless ways to turn towards service.

    Meanwhile, the clarity that isolation brings has allowed me to move on from some relationships that weren’t working for me. This is a time of change, after all, so might as well embrace it.

  6. Reflect and Then Allow Yourself to Change

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    As social animals who evolved in tribes, being kept away from your fellow humans is going to hurt. Extended periods of isolation is not a natural way to live, and some discomfort and suffering as a result is actually a positive sign.

    Acceptance of the inevitable suffering you’re feeling as a result of the circumstances is an essential component to tolerating it.

    But all this alone time can become truly unbearable when your own company is a curse. If you can’t stand to be alone, even for short periods, chances are it’s because you can’t tolerate your own thoughts and emotions over past actions and behavioral trends that are likely to continue if you don’t commit to necessary reflecting, followed by taking appropriate actions to move forward as a better version of yourself. Even just working towards that goal can help shift your mindset from one of regret and guilt to one of hope and progress.

    Online therapy is available for those with the resources to access it, with many mental health professionals offering a sliding scale based on one’s ability to pay. Workbooks are also plentiful, including for the aforementioned practice of CBT therapy. Journaling is also a great way to express your thoughts and feelings; keep a record of how you’re doing, and make note of the ways in which you’re prioritizing your mental health.

    The magnitude of this global event will inevitably change us all, but it doesn’t have to break us. If we’re lucky, and we put in the work, it could even reshape us in some fundamental ways for the better instead of the worse.

Journalist, editor, and artist.