The Emotional Toll of Self Isolation during COVID 19
The UK has now entered a period of lockdown as a result of COVID 19. Taking away the practical issues of moving to a more virtual form of working and communicating, there is the additional pressure on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing that this post seeks to address. The change in routine, increased time at home and lack of freedoms, can raise issues that we had sought to supress through our busy lives. I write this with the acknowledgement that those working on the front line will be experiencing the opposite.
Being stripped of many of the things that we use to manage our mental and emotional health creates a space that can feel quite daunting. I am aware that for parents, the lack of school and after school activities is creating times when children can face far longer periods of boredom than under normal conditions. As parents I think we overly fill our children’s lives and risk them being hyper aroused, less able to manage the more mundane.
This equally applies to me. I work 4 days a week and regularly overfill the remainder of my free time with committee meetings, exercise, hosting friends and family and generally “running” around. This inevitably can leave little time to “smell the roses” as the expression goes. To create stillness, I try and meditate daily, but this can often be the only moments of quiet. The level of change created by the pandemic and the shift in responsibilities from active social and working lives to virtual ones, is unsettling for many.
I am aware, through my job as a psychotherapist, that my often hectic lifestyle can provide many functions, both good and bad. It helps me with my mental and physical health, provides joy, aspirations, purpose and keeps me from experiencing what a more passive lifestyle might conjure up. As I am imagining the tumble weed moments of the coming months, I think it is important to acknowledge what difficult feelings my “busyness” keeps at bay. Whilst everyone will have their own reactions and challenges to this period, I am using my own personal reflections to illustrate the emotional responses self-isolation. In my case, it is a sense of not wanting to feel bored, that has become a defence against more difficult feelings that I can sometimes avoid. Indeed, a good dose of boredom might be something we need to embrace.
For me, space and time can trigger existential questions and worry about the world we are living in. It can make me feel less significant, relevant and highlight why I like keeping distracted, so I don’t have to face such dilemmas. I also have to deal with the highs and lows of family life which are being accentuated living under one roof 24/7. I would like to stay with the more idealised version of my family that self-isolation is testing each day.
Speaking to a colleague they mentioned what I think is another important point; parents during maternity/paternity are faced with serious changes to their self-identity. We learn to redefine ourselves and for many this is a serious challenge of parenthood. We go from what can feel like being a working equal with our partner to a stay-at-home mum or dad, knee-deep in washing-up and domestic chores. Our jobs can help prop up our sense of self and when we are deprived of this we have to dig deep to redefine and hold onto a different sense of self. COVID 19 is creating this tension as many face a reduction in work, no work, or a change in working environment.
One of my friends forwarded me a “quarantine nickname” generator, where you insert how you are feeling with the last thing you ate from the fridge/cupboard. Whilst being called a Trapped Tomato caused amusement within the household, on reflection I realised that we are all facing heightened worries, fears and anxiety around our health and that of others, with many of the things we used to manage difficult feelings taken away. No wonder we are turning more to food as comfort at a time of stress.
It is likely that for many, self-isolation will strip away things that had been used to manage or avoid difficult feelings and which scaffolded our sense of self and purpose.
What can we do as we face the reality of self-isolation over the coming months? We need to be able to look after our mental and emotional health, seek a renewed sense of resilience and hopefully, develop ourselves as better people.
It is important at these moments to understand the emotional function of our “busyness”, jobs and activities we do to create meaning and fun. Whilst drink, drugs, eating (over or under), cleaning and other activities might help us manage difficult emotions in the short term, they are not a long term solution. Healthier options such as exercise, walking in nature (with the correct social distancing protocol), helping others, communication, reading, writing, music, all have their role to play in embracing change.
It is also important to deeply reflect on how our lives have been set up and what defences we put in place to stamp out what many call the “nameless dread” (unbearable feelings that cannot be put into words or explained) that is lurking somewhere in all of us. Though it will have different origins, for many it can be linked to loss, existential anxieties and a lack of feeling in control. These are being brought up even more acutely at this difficult time.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a leader of a religious community. I asked them what they felt was “the meaning of life” and they like all good leaders, reframed the question to “ask what can you do to make meaning”. As I rolodex the next few months of difficult news, a stretched NHS, cancelled plans, I will hold this question in mind and reflect too on what feelings my busyness has kept to the edges of my consciousness. Hopefully in this way, I can use this unparalleled period to better manage my emotional and mental wellbeing at this time and for the future.
Psychotherapist, Coach, Trainer and Co Founder at Healthyminds@work