For some people, self-isolation has brought positive experiences – they have more time to spend with their kids or their partner, are getting to know their housemates better or have moved back in with their parents for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
But what if you live alone, and have to spend the next few weeks, or potentially months, on your own?
Millions of people, young and old, don’t have a housemate or family to hang out with right now, and loneliness can be difficult to deal with – even more so when there’s a global pandemic happening at the same time.
Humans are inherently social creatures and not getting our usual fill of social interaction can have a negative impact on our mental health, with some research showing direct links between loneliness and depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, increased stress and more.
‘A significant part of being human is the desire to have social connections and secure attachments,’ Dr Michele McDowell, a psychologist, tells us.
‘Irrespective of age, gender, race or class most people spend a considerable amount of time interacting and communicating with others.
‘How to make and maintain social connections are a fundamental part of our early development, countless studies have indicated the importance of initial attachments for learning to make healthy social connections.
‘Conversely social isolation can have a significant and adverse impact on our physical and mental health.’
Introverts might relish in the temporary break from having to spend time with others – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but even if you’re used to being alone, solo self-isolation might trigger unwanted, negative mental health effects.
Sure, you might not want to spend time with people having brunch or chatting with colleagues, but at present, almost all interaction – like smiling at the bus driver as you get on, chit-chatting with the barista at your local café or even just spending time by yourself but in a public place – is cut off.
‘Many people are happy to spend time alone whilst for others, isolation causes a sense of loneliness or can trigger a fear response that can lead to the development of anxiety, phobias, obsessive focuses and low mood,’ Charles Linden, a mental health recovery specialist and founder of the Linden Centre, tells us.
‘It’s important to understand that it is not what you think that changes how you feel, but what you do. ‘
Sometimes, doing anything at all when you’re feeling lonely, depressed or anxious can be easier said than done, so here are some practical tips from experts on how to improve your mood if you’re feeling low.
How to improve your mood if you’re feeling low
Dr McDowell presents four areas to work on; connections, structure, keeping calm and personal development.
In a nutshell, this involves staying in touch with your friends and family in whatever way you can (virtually, so you all stay safe).
As for the structure, develop a routine that includes ‘physical exercise and brain activities, as well as practical activities, like going shopping and cleaning’.
You might also find it useful to keep a journal, practice mindfulness or learn something new (personal development).
And, if you’re still working, create an office space – so that you can separate your work life from your home life.
‘If you are still working, set yourself a morning goal to replace the commute time, and then settle down to work, and if it’s helpful, dress up in your normal business wear,’ says Jivan Dempsey, a psychologist, coach and integrative hypnotherapist.
‘It’s also important to make sure you take regular breaks from the laptop during your workday and finish work at your usual time.’
If you’re struggling with being home alone and it’s affecting your work, it might be worth talking to your manager (if you feel OK to do so) or set up a lunchtime or after-work drinks video chat with your colleagues.
But what about if you’re on furlough?
Suddenly, there’s no daily distractions and you’ve got to fill hours upon hours, all by yourself.
It might be tempting to stay under the covers, but Jivan doesn’t recommend it.
‘If you are on furlough, it’s even more important to maintain a routine so you avoid confusing your internal body clock,’ she says.
‘Think about the things you can do to with your day, your interests, your hobbies.
‘Maybe it’s time to consider learning new skills, writing that book, preparing for a new career. Setting personal goals, implementing them and your daily exercise is important for your mental and physical wellbeing as it can provide you with a structure.’
But give yourself space and time to have fun, too – don’t push yourself into spending your entire time in self-isolation aiming for self-improvement.
Strike a good balance.
‘Give yourself a goal that you can only allow yourself to do at the weekend,’Jivan adds.
‘It might be the things you would do normally. If that’s going out then recreate a club scene in your home, dinner party with friends, games night and invite your friends and family virtually.
‘Be creative and make the most of the things we can do.’
Additionally, if you’re feeling anxious about the current coronavirus situation, you might find it beneficial to limit your news or social media intake.
‘Staying home all day and experiencing the adversity caused by Covid-19 via the news will only increase your fear,’ says Dr Martina Paglia, psychologist and founder of The International Psychology Clinic.
‘Reading lots of news about the virus will only make your anxiety spiral out of control.
‘Make sure you stay connected with the outside world.
‘If used in the right way, social media can prove to be a great tool that could help you through this epidemic.’
When and how to ask for help if you feel alone
If you’ve tried a new hobby, have given meditation a go and had multiple video chats and virtual pub quizzes with friends (or tried some of the other tips above) but still feel lonely, it might be time to ask for help.
And that’s OK – you don’t need to go through this on your own, just because you’re physically alone.
‘First of all you have to validate your emotions,’ says Dr Galyna Selezneva, a trained psychiatrist and aesthetics doctor.
‘Every single person on this planet is struggling right now. This is what unites us as human race of today.
‘So it is absolutely OK to admit to yourself that you are struggling, once your self-observation is complete it’s very easy to ask for help…most likely you will be asked for help in return.’
Some warning signs to look out for, according to Dr Selezneva, is a lack of personal hygiene, reduced appetite, increased snacking of low nutritional food, having trouble sleeping and lower energy levels.
Avoid turning to alcohol and drugs too, as this can exacerbate negative emotions.
If it all gets too much, reach out to a family member, friend or a mental health professional.
Dr Linden says: ‘Even though you may have decided you need some support, it can often be difficult to know who to turn to.
‘In recent years there has been a huge increase in the amount of resources available to people who need a helping hand.
‘If you are experiencing very low mood or feelings of despair that lasts more than three or four days, it is always best to speak to your GP. ‘
Alternatively, if you just want someone to talk to, you can reach out to mental health charities like Mind and Samaritans.
If you need urgent medical assistance or are worried that you might hurt yourself, call 999.
Need support? Contact the Samaritans
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
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