Self-Care and Social Distance

I’m neither a medical doctor nor a mental health professional, but I am a human with more than average experience surviving while socially isolated and/ or homebound. As such, I wanted to share some tips for thinking through how you might best care for yourself in this new era of social distance.

Below are some questions I ask myself to aid in my self-care. Your answers to them will probably be different, as they’ll be based in a different experience and set of needs, but I hope they’ll lead you somewhere useful all the same.

What are your needs and how can you meet them?

Being isolated or homebound can result in a variety of uncomfortable feelings that look very similar. Boredom and loneliness, for example, tend to feel very similar for me, but require different kinds of attention. If I’m lonely, and I try to put a puzzle together, it’s unlikely to make me feel less lonely. Work on recognizing the difference between needing stimulation and needing social connection, and act accordingly. If you can’t figure out⁠ what you’re feeling, try different kinds of solutions (like a mindless task, a challenging one, a social one, a physical one, and so on) until you stumble on something that helps.

On that note, it’s useful to realize that not all forms of stimulation are created equal, and different activities can meet different needs. Sometimes when I’m anxious, distraction is super useful, and a YouTube rabbit hole or Hulu series is just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes, mindless scrolling feels like a slow and irreversible march toward death. When mindless activities aren’t working for me, I usually switch to one of the following:

  • Something physical. See below.
  • Something social. See below again.
  • Something meaningful. See still further below.
  • Something that requires my brain. This could be work or schoolwork, if those are things you have on your plate, but it could also be some sort of puzzle (jigsaw! sudoku! crossword!). You might also take this chance to learn a new instrument or skill, memorize some new set of trivia, or tackle any other challenge that appeals to you. In the glossiest possible spin, now is a time that’s available for learning something new or relearning something old. So, ask yourself, what do I want to be learning?

How can you care for yourself physically?

Remember that spending more time at home does not have to mean spending more time sitting around. If there are ways you can safely be active (stretching, jumping rope, learning TikTok dances), do yourself that favor. Even making a point to stand up, stretch, and walk around your home can make a difference for your body and mood.

In addition to movement or exercise, think about other forms of physical self-care, like showers or baths, lotions, warm or otherwise comforting foods, soft blankets, et cetera. Consider playing more with your appearance, instead of less. If you’re a human who enjoys colorful clothes, makeup, or accessories, and your home is a safe place to wear those things, by all means dress up to sit on your sofa. Why not? Taking a little extra time to care for your body can go a long way toward helping it, and you, feel human.

Speaking of caring for your body…

Are there ways you can spend time outside?

Anxiety loves to deal in extremes, but social distance is not the same as quarantine. If it’s possible for you to spend time outside, even just to sit on your front step or to walk or wheel around your block, consider doing so. Sunlight and fresh air will not cure COVID-19, anxiety, or depression, but they are legit medicinal, nevertheless.

How can you be social?

Social distance doesn’t have to mean social isolation, even if you are in a position where you’re more seriously isolated.

Think about ways you can catch up with friends and chosen family. Keep in mind that social media platforms and group chats cast a wider net and can be great for immediate support and socializing, while contacting a particular person directly can give you a deeper sense of connection. (One person probably can’t manage all your social needs and they might not be available in every moment you’d like them to be. On the other hand, just posting to social media without connecting more directly with particular folks can leave you feeling alone in a crowd. Try to find a balance between the two.)

You’ll also want to consider communication⁠ tools like video chat and phone calls that simulate the “in-person” experience more closely than text or IM.

(Yes, this is me, an anxious person who hates phones, recommending you use phones for phone purposes. It’s also me recommending that you try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking on this. You don’t have to become a Phone Person or stop having anxiety about phones to use them a little to your advantage. Consider socializing with people you’re more comfortable with, consider calls that last literally ten seconds, consider exchanging voicemails or short videos without anyone picking up, etc. The world is rich with options.)

If you need to supplement your socializing further, think about ways to see or hear from people, even if you can’t actually have conversations with them. Podcasts, YouTube videos, television, and audiobooks can’t be your new best friend, but they can fill a silence and help remind you that other people exist in the world with you. You might also think about ways to exercise your voice, even if no one’s around to listen. Record a video, talk through your thoughts aloud, or sing along with some of your favorite jams. Remind yourself you are able to make noise.

What habits can you set up to care for yourself?

For many of us, responsibilities and relationships outside the home help to structure our days. When we’re not attending work or school, or seeing people in the same ways we usually do, it can be easy to fall into new routines that don’t work well for us. (I’m looking at you, all-day Netflix marathon). It can also be easy to stop having routines altogether. (Why do at a particular time what you can endlessly put off?) Instead of falling into this trap, try and take care of yourself by establishing some boundaries and routines in your day. Explore particular times or ranges of times for things like getting out of bed, showering, working, resting, etc. It’s a beautiful thing to not have to wake up with an alarm, but you don’t have to throw out the clock altogether. Instead, try and use this flexibility in your favor.

Habits around sleep may be especially important to consider. Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety often result in sleep changes, and many of us make different choices around sleep when we don’t have to wake up at a particular time. In my experience, it’s less important that your sleep schedule look exactly the same as it would if you were attending work or school as you were, and more important that it remain a routine of some sort. Try to maintain “sleep hygiene” by going to bed around the same time, wearing different clothing than you did during the day, and winding down without your phone (journaling? reading? daydreaming?). If you find you’re spending too much time laying around in bed, alter your routine a little. You might limit “being in bed” to “actual bedtime,” and/ or give yourself a particular amount of time upon waking before you shower, have breakfast, or otherwise start your morning.

You’ll also want to keep in mind how a variation in your schedule might impact existing habits, like taking medication. Try setting alarms to remind you of important things, including any meds you take, and be aware that changes to your sleep, meals, and medication schedule might affect your experience with meds and side effects.

Thinking about habits is also useful for your long-term care. Anxiety is particularly skilled at taking a concrete event (“I need to spend less time socializing because of this virus”) and generalizing it to an abstract principle (“I’m unsafe outside or with other humans.”) If you know you’re at risk for anxiety, especially social anxiety and agoraphobia, it’s especially important for you to build in habits that push back on that generalizing process. This might look like spending a little time outside each day or speaking with someone on a regular basis. Think of it like the behavioral equivalent of not letting your muscles atrophy. You want to make sure you’re maintaining and building skills for when this crisis has passed.

How can you switch things up?

Habits are key, but days that are overly similar can also start to feel monotonous fast. Think about ways to create novelty and variation, even within the same space and activities. This might mean playing with your environment – spending time in different rooms, turning on more or fewer lights, varying the soundtrack, etc. It might also mean doing an activity you’re bored of in a new way. Try live-tweeting the show you’re watching or having a virtual study group with friends online. Take your bedding to a different room and set up a picnic on the floor. Read your book aloud instead of silently. Basically, find the habits and routines you need to keep caring for yourself, and then see what kind of flexibility you can create inside them.

What can you do that is meaningful?

One of the real pitfalls of a homebound or isolated existence can be a sense that nothing really matters. Finding ways to feel like your days are meaningful is a huge key to surviving. As someone who finds meaning in community, this question often takes me back to social needs. How can I be making meaningful connections? How can I serve my community? Keep in mind that things like community engagement and service don’t have to disappear just because you’re spending more time at home. You might be able to volunteer remotely, by writing letters (or random internet posts that might be useful to people), by preparing care packages, or in some other way I can’t even fathom. You also might be someone who finds meaning in something less community-based, like working toward a goal.

The important thing here isn’t what you find meaning in; the important thing is being aware of the need to matter. You matter. Your days matter. Find a way to show that to yourself.

What can you do and what support do you need?

The goal of this piece is not to overwhelm anyone with a new lists of “shoulds.” You might find some of these suggestions more useful, or more doable, than others. You are by no means obligated to do them all or to do them perfectly. Instead, keep these in mind as areas to consider in caring for yourself and your health.

Remember that you can start by doing just one thing, in one small way. Try to do that one thing, and to share the experience of doing it with someone else. Sometimes, just communicating the self-care we’re working on can help us stay accountable and continue it. Sometimes, connecting with other people who are navigating similar challenges can make those challenges easier to tackle.

It’s okay if this is a difficult time, but there are tools available to you to help you manage that difficulty. There are also people who can help. If you need therapeutic support, please reach out and get it. You can do this, and—even in the age of social distance—you don’t have to do it alone.

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