Principles for coping with isolation

I am sharing some principles for coping with isolation that I learned through being housebound due to chronic illness. I spent September and October 2015, and February, March and April 2018, mostly at home. It was self-isolation, but because I was too fatigued to work, walk very far or talk to people. An uncertain and fearful time. Would I get better? Would I be able to work again? Routines and plans didn’t work for me, but, looking back, I can see that learning to follow these principles helped me to cope with isolation*:

  • Options, not timetables
  • Let things emerge
  • Become a noticer
  • Gather what bolsters you
  • Be intentional about connection

*I have many privileges. They helped too.

Principles

Options, not timetables

Try not to create rigid timetables or plans right now. For example, you might be tempted to write out a self-care routine with daily meditation, yoga, workouts, breathwork, journaling and cooking. These plans feel good because they help you to feel in control, but when you don’t stick to them, you might beat yourself up about it (I certainly did). How do you know the ideal daily routine for you during a once-in-a-century global pandemic? No one knows what to do; crisis is a cognitive impairment, as Kylie Havelock writes. Your routine will emerge in time. Right now, can you do one, small, caring thing for yourself per day, at whenever time feels right for you? In 2018, I made a Mood Box to help me with this. No rules, just a bunch of options for when I felt low or overwhelmed or lost or anxious.

My Mood Box. It’s decorated with stickers and fake moustaches. Inside is a Japanese picture book of owls, owl confetti and a card that says: “Sing Hamilton soundtrack”.

How to make a Mood Box

  1. Find a box
  2. Decorate it with silly things
  3. Find or create some small cards, aim for 10–15
  4. On each card, write one thing that improves your mood (for example, singing the Hamilton soundtrack, calling a friend, cooking a meal)
  5. Put in some amusing or nice objects
  6. When you feel low, open your Mood Box and pick a card that appeals to you in that moment

Yes, those are fake moustaches. Fake moustaches are hilarious. Yes, there are many owl-related items. I love owls.

Let things emerge

Try to resist the urge to maximise the efficiency of your time in isolation to become your best self. You don’t need to “come out of this” with a new business idea, a perfect meditation habit or fluent in Spanish. When I told someone that I was spending months off work because I was ill, they asked me: “surely you’ll learn to drive, or pick up another skill? You can’t just do nothing!”. It’s hard for many people to imagine simply being, not doing.

I did pick up new skills when I was housebound but they were not the skills that capitalism rewards or that I would have valued at the time. I learned how to listen to my body and mind, how to self-soothe my panic and fear, how to tolerate uncertainty, how to adapt, how to advocate for myself, how to adopt a growth mindset, how to support myself through grief for the things I was losing. I had free time and I gained some knowledge by reading around my area (organisation design). At the time, I saw this negatively: “all I’m doing is reading articles and everyone else is getting on with their jobs and achieving things”. It turned out to be hugely beneficial to my career.

I couldn’t have predicted any of these benefits at the time, because I was living in a different paradigm, and it took fundamental shifts, and lots of time “doing nothing” for the good or useful things to become apparent. There are likely more benefits from this experience that I haven’t yet understood, even two years later. I expect I will continue to learn from it all of my life.

Become a noticer

The stress of isolation has strange and unpredictable effects on your body and mind. You may start thinking things and behaving in ways that don’t feel like you (please seek help if you’re struggling, more info here). My time being housebound quieted the usual chatter of life, and allowed me to notice these signals.

One day, in 2018, I opened my wardrobe and had the disquieting feeling that all of my clothes belonged to someone else, and I couldn’t wear them. Not that I didn’t want to wear them, just that they weren’t mine. I think this was a signal that I was changing. Yesterday, in March 2020, I forgot some basic steps in a recipe that I know like the back of my hand. This type of forgetting usually means I’m becoming cognitively overwhelmed. A few days ago, my right shoulder seized up, as it always does when I’m stressed. Signals. If you notice the signals, you can make better decisions.

Gather what bolsters you

It can be confronting to be isolated all day, every day. I relied on my gratitude journal to bring a daily, positive counterweight to the negative events, thoughts and feelings. It’s also helpful to do things that give you a feeling of mastery and purpose. That makes you feel connected to you. If you can work from home, perhaps your work will give you this feeling, or maybe it’s volunteering, or a hobby. Something else that grounded me: reflecting on and writing down my personal purpose, values and strengths. It gave me faith that a change in my circumstances didn’t mean everything about me was mutable or adrift. I was still valuable. Some tips for defining values here. I defined my strengths with the guidance of coach extraordinaire, Nina Timmers, by asking friends and family for their views of my strengths.

Some personal values work I did when I first went freelance in 2017. The values are: growth, meaning, caring, risk-taking, balance, equality and freedom

Be intentional about connection

Some very artistic sketches of two of my friends in my support network

I used to map support networks with participants in user research interviews. I found it a helpful personal practice to remind me that I have people in my corner who I can call if I’m feeling low. To map your support network: on a piece of paper, sketch all the people in your life who you can lean on. Friends and family to call if you’re feeling low, professionals that support you, colleagues and neighbours who can help you.

Other sources

Advice on how to protect your mental health.

Listen to disability activists and people with chronic illnesses. They are experts on living with isolation, loss, uncertainty and fear. Read this article by Rob Bates on what we have to learn from the Cystic Fibrosis community, and this article by Lauren Nathan-Lane in Gal-Dem on approaching Coronavirus through the lens of community. Read this crowdsourced list of living well while housebound by people with ME/CFS.

Finally, please spare a thought for people with conditions that mean they are housebound or bedbound for years, with no end in sight.

An Instagram post from Miranda Hart. It says: For all those suffering with chronic illness, let this virus be a time we can make you feel heard and understood. People with chronic fatigue/ ME, EDS, fibromyalgia/ pain, POTs, adrenal burn out etc etc that are completely debilitated and often housebound. For those who fear or are experiencing the two week self-isolation then this is what these brave warriors deal with every single day for months and months and often years and years. Housebound with pain, weakness and fatigue. With a daily grief of all the things that means missing out on. Extraordinary people. People who I suspect the wisest and kindest of us all. We love you. And I am just so so sorry you are so misunderstood and unrecognised in what you go through.

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