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Coping With Quarantine: Mental Health Tips For Life Alone

Benjamin Schwartz
Mar 14 · 13 min read

For the last two months, I’ve been living in the heavily quarantined city of Beijing. With quarantine measures now being implemented worldwide, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about how best to cope with this kind of lifestyle!

First off, let me say that it has not exactly been a fun time. A quarantine is a huge disruption to every aspect of life and brings with it all kinds of huge difficulties. Especially for an extrovert like me, social distancing sucks! (For a glimpse at what life has been like, read my last facebook post!) But y’know what? IT HAS WORKED. Since the implementing of quarantine and tracking protocols, the virus has been successfully contained in China. Here in Beijing, we’re down to less than a hundred active cases and only have one or two new ones reported every few days. It has been a long process, but it has been absolutely worth it to save as many lives as possible.

And now, at long last, spring is coming to Beijing. The quarantine protocols are still very much in place¹, but the mood here has lifted. The ghost town days have ended. People are out and about, enjoying the sunshine and admiring the first spring blossoms. There’s even traffic again, and plenty of folks on the subway! All the restaurants at the food court at my local mall are open again! We’re not back to full Beijing bustle, but we’re heading in that direction. We’re getting to the other end of this chaos just as the rest of the world is being plunged headlong into it. It’s a strange time.

The author stands in front of a bush of yellow blossoms and a yellow bicycle. They are wearing a medical mask.
The author stands in front of a bush of yellow blossoms and a yellow bicycle. They are wearing a medical mask.
Beijing blossoms.

I did not have a good first few weeks in quarantine! I am an extrovert with anxiety, depression, and ADHD, and am living on my own with no roommates for the first time. Not a great combination! But through trial and error (and with a ton of help from wonderful friends), I figured things out, and these days I’m doing just fine. So I thought I would share some useful practical tips for all my friends out there who are staring down the possibility of a long period of unexpected isolation. Not all of these tips will apply to all people, but hopefully folks can find some help in them.

What this is NOT is any kind of medical or political² advice. I leave that to experts who are far more knowledgeable than I. And I am definitely not any kind of expert in anything relevant, just a person who has some experience to share.

Some of this advice will also likely run counter to best medical practices! If you actually want to maintain absolute maximum medical quarantine, go for it. For a lot of people (especially those who have a high risk of serious complications from the virus) that’s going to be the best bet³. And of course if you’ve been potentially directly exposed to the virus then you need to maintain the fourteen day quarantine protocol to make sure you don’t have it. It’s important to remember that maintaining quarantine and self-isolation isn’t just about you, it’s about doing your part to keep your community safe.

But it’s also important to remember that the mental health consequences of prolonged isolation are very real, especially if you’ve never experienced it before. Your goal should always be to protect your own physical health, but sometimes you need to strike a balance between that and maintaining your mental health. In a time of quarantine, safety and sanity can be competing needs! Everyone will have to determine what the right balance is for themselves based on their needs and risk profile. It’s okay that your quarantine might not look exactly the same as someone else’s.

Okay. Enough of the preamble. On to the actual tips!


1. If you can, go outside on a regular basis! See the sun! Take a walk around your neighborhood! Go for a hike in the woods! Yes, being outside raises your risk, but wear a mask and stay a few feet from other folks who are outdoors. (If your city is anything like Beijing has been, that won’t be hard! The streets were absolutely empty for weeks.)

2. Support local businesses! A lot of places will be closing and struggling to figure out how to stay afloat. Figure out which restaurants are still open and patronize them. Many restaurants will switch to doing delivery food, even if they didn’t used to. Even some bookstores and comic shops⁴ are doing deliveries! They still need your business, now more than ever.

3. Reach out to people. Your network will be your strongest resource. Keep in touch with distant friends and loved ones! Set up video chats! Reach out to that friend you haven’t heard from in ages but have been meaning to reconnect with!

4. Socialize in small ways. Big group gatherings are of course a bad idea, but you can still see your friends! Go out for a meal one-on-one. Have a friend or two over for board games or a movie night. Try not to go too many days in a row without contact with another human being, especially if you live alone! (EDIT: Given how things are looking in the US, put off even those small social visits for at least a week. In the long run of quarantine, small bits of socializing will help, but in the short term it’s better to prioritize isolation and flattening the curve.) (EDIT 2: In the week since I wrote this, it’s become clear that ANY face to face interaction that isn’t strictly necessary is a very bad idea. So this one’s a no-go for the foreseeable future.)

5. Make a groupchat of local friends in your city/neighborhood. I’ve been in one of these here, courtesy of a brilliant friend, and it’s been one of the absolute best sources of sanity. A good groupchat of local friends can help keep each other informed about what businesses are open, what the latest local news is, organize small outings for food and coworking, and be a great place to reach out and ask for help. We live in a very global time, which is wonderful, but with travel not an option it’s more important than ever to connect to people nearby. (I’ve actually made a bunch of new friends during the quarantine time through our groupchat!)

6. Getting even more local, befriend your neighbors! When you’re having a hard time, your immediate community can be a wonderful resource and source of support. Know who in your building/block/etc might have extra needs or extra resources to share. Who has kids that need help being watched? Who has pets that need feeding or walking? Who hoarded a shitload of masks and toilet paper and can give you some when you run out? Look out for each other.

7. Plans and events will get cancelled. That trip you’ve been looking forward to for months? Those concert tickets you have? That larp you’ve been gearing up to run? That conference you were counting on to network towards your next job opportunity?⁵ All of that is cancelled. It sucks like hell. It is totally valid to be upset about that. Especially if you’re depressed, having future events to look forward to can be a huge help, and losing out on that can hurt something fierce. Give yourself time and space to grieve for that. Be gentle with yourself.

8. …and then make some NEW plans! Give yourself something to look forward to! They don’t have to be big plans. They can be as small as video chatting with a friend next week, or as nebulous setting an intention to go for a camping trip with some buddies when the quarantine is over. One of the biggest stresses of a disruption like this is the uncertainty of the future. Giving yourself future fun things to await can be a huge help with that, even if you don’t know exactly WHEN you’ll get to implement those plans!

9. Get some exercise! I’ve been experimenting with YouTube home workout videos lately on the advice of my therapist. I feel VERY silly jogging in place alone in my apartment while a lady in a video says encouraging things at me, but y’know what are great? Endorphins. Endorphins are great.

10. Learn a new skill! You’ve got time on your hands, after all. Fire up Duolingo. Look up some YouTube embroidery tutorials. Try out a new recipe. Take up a new instrument. Write that novel.⁶

11. Read books! Watch shows! Play games! We all have lists a mile long of things we’ve been meaning to catch on. Now is the time! But don’t stop there — once you finish something, reach out to your friends to TALK about it. Use your media consumption as an excuse for more social interaction!

12. Everyone is going to cope differently. Be kind to one another and don’t shame people who are managing their stresses in ways that aren’t like your own. By the same token, don’t let people guilt trip you into abandoning your own coping tools!

13. There’s going to be a LOT of misinformation and inaccurate news coming out in the weeks ahead. It’s more important than ever to double and triple check your sources. But remember to be gentle when you’re correcting other people who are sharing inaccurate information! They’re almost certainly not doing it maliciously, and lashing out is just going to add to everyone’s stress.

14. If you feel like you’re doing alright, proactively reach out to offer support to people you know (especially local ones) who might have additional challenges that you can help with. Families with younger kids in particular might appreciate the help as they navigate the trickiness of school closures. Offering a few hours of babysitting or running some extra errands can go a long way.

15. Remember to eat enough food! When your daily routine is gone, eating meals regularly is one of the first things to get lost. This was one I really struggled with at first, but it’s so important. It’s okay if it’s simple sandwiches, but eat SOMETHING. Set an alarm if you have to, to remind yourself to eat a few times a day! Or set up accountability networks with friends where you check in on each other and make sure you’re eating. And this is not just my ever-present Jewish mother tendencies speaking — if your health crumbles because of malnutrition, you’re going to be at much higher risk of getting sick! So eat FOOD!

16. If you have old unhealthy habits or patterns you’re prone to (such as excessive drinking, self-harm, depression, or whatever else), keep an eye out for them resurfacing in new contexts. Even if it’s something you feel like you’ve beaten and haven’t dealt with in ages, isolation can really bring things back. It sure did for me, and because I wasn’t looking out for it, it took me a lot longer than it should have to figure out what was happening!⁷

17. Keep taking your meds. “Oh but Books,” you say, “I’m not going to work! I don’t need to take my meds right now!” … did I stutter!? KEEP TAKING YOUR MEDS, YA DANGUS! You’re on those for a reason! Your brain still needs to function, now more than ever! (Yes, this is another one I learned the hard way. I’m the dangus.)

18. If it’s at all possible, set a schedule for yourself. Maintain daily structure. Maintain weekends. It helps a lot. Don’t let time turn into a vague blur! If you’re a person who has and enjoys certain daily or weekly rituals, find ways to keep them going, even if they’re in altered form. You might have to get creative, but it’s worth it. For example, the local Beijing Kehillat community has taken to hosting Friday night Shabbat services over group video chats, with everyone lighting candles and singing together from the safety of their own home. It’s a really lovely way to stay connected to each other and to keep that comforting weekly ritual going.

19. Are you working from home for the first time? Prepare yourself for a big change! It might not be easy at first (or ever), and that’s okay! Set up virtual coworking time with friends and colleagues. If you can, go to a friend’s apartment and cowork with them! If you’re struggling, and feel even slightly safe doing so, tell your bosses that you’re having a hard time. Now more than ever, they’ll likely be willing to make allowances and be understanding. Chances are they’re struggling to adjust too!

20. Remember that not everyone CAN work from home. Not all jobs work that way. If you’re one of the lucky ones who’s still taking in a steady paycheck, see if you can set aside some of it to take care of your friends who aren’t as lucky. I’m not saying pay their rent for them⁸, but spot them for meals when you can. Some professions that are being hit especially hard: event organizing, food service, sex work, live theater/music, teaching. You’ve almost certainly got friends who do some of these jobs — be there for them when they need you. (And if you’re in one of those jobs yourself and need financial support, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help from your community!)

21. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t force yourself to be productive all the time. Maintain personal time, whether or not you’re working from home. Keep up a good work/life balance! WFH can quickly take over your life, but don’t let it. Set up a work space away from your bed. Hold to actual work hours and don’t respond to work emails after dinner or on weekends, if it’s at all possible.

22. Start a new roleplaying game with friends! Roll20 is a great way to do some collaborative storytelling, but it’s not the only one. Break out those mid-2000s online RPG formats. Do some play-by-email roleplaying. Set up a freeform RP Discord server. Keep your eyes out for an imminent explosion of games designed to be played over video chat.

23. This is the perfect time to do that home improvement project you’ve been putting off, or to decorate your living space! You’re going to be spending WAY more time in it than you ordinarily do, so make it a pleasant place to be!⁹ I finally decorated my own room (for the first time since I was a child; all of my bedrooms have been pretty barren) and I’m delighted with it. I got some fake plants online and taped them up and now I feel like I live in a jungle!

A bed with fake ivy wrapped around the bedframe, and more fake vines on the walls and over a picture frame on the wall.
A bed with fake ivy wrapped around the bedframe, and more fake vines on the walls and over a picture frame on the wall.
Isn’t it cute? Next step is to weave fairy lights into the fake ivy!

24. Take social media breaks. You need them. Trust me. Twitter and Facebook ramp up your stress. Give yourself at least a few hours offline a day. Read a physical book, go for a long walk, just do SOMETHING that disconnects you from the constant online panic.

25. As best you can: don’t give in to despair. Stay hopeful. Stay positive. Remember that this will not be forever, and that it is absolutely worth it. Quarantine is not fun… but it saves lives. It flattens the curve. By sticking it out, you’re doing your part for your community. So put on some upbeat music and throw yourself a dance party in your room, because hey — you’re helping save the world! You’re a superhero! You’ve got this, and you’re not in it alone, no matter how much it might feel like it some days. We’re all in this together, and we’re going to make it through together. Spring will come.

A close-up photo of cherry blossoms.
A close-up photo of cherry blossoms.
The first signs of life at the end of winter.

Okay, those are the tips I have off the top of my head. I hope this is helpful. If you have more tips to share (and I bet you do — you’re smart people), please add them in the comments!


FOOTNOTES:

[1] And some of them are even ramping up, actually, out of fear of the virus being reintroduced from outside China!

[2] The one political note I will make is that the incredibly badass Congresswoman Katie Porter, who forced the CDC to commit to covering testing nationwide, is being targeted by the GOP to try to take her seat! She could use your help, so donate to her re-election campaign to make sure she can keep doing the vital work she’s doing.

[3] It’s also worth noting that a lot folks who are chronically ill or otherwise immunocompromised are the ones who already have the most experience with living with isolation and unexpected plan disruptions! They know what’s up. Listen to them. (And also remember that when you complain about how hard it is, the people who are listening might be living in similar circumstances most of the time. Which is not to say you can’t complain, just remember to be considerate when you do.)

[4] Shoutout to the wonderful Cape & Cowl Comics in Oakland!

[5] All of these are things I have personally had cancelled!

[6] Did you know you can now do NaNoWriMo ANY TIME OF YEAR? The new version of the website lets you set your own timeline and goals! How cool is that!?

[7] “Huh, this is so weird! I wonder why I haven’t gotten anything done in days and I’m sleeping sixteen hours a day! And every time I try to do something nice I just stare into space blankly for hours on end! …oh HEY, this is a DEPRESSIVE EPISODE! WHOOPS.” You would think I would’ve caught on to that one earlier, but sometimes brains are silly!

[8] But if you have the kind of money where you COULD pay your friends’ rents for them then I am ABSOLUTELY saying that. People are going to be seriously struggling with rent right now and if you’ve got the cash to help them out, DO SO.

[9] If you’re looking to get some new art to put up, check out the #ECCCOnline hashtag on twitter! It’s full of amazing independent artists whose plans to sell at Emerald City Comic Con got cancelled and are selling their work online!

#fromthepagesofbooks

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