Many of us the world over now find ourselves in isolation, either forced to shelter in place as is the case in large parts of California, or practice social distancing and effectively spend more time at home.
While Counterstrike gamers and Netflix bingers might’ve been unknowingly in training for this moment their entire lives, for most of us — even the introverts among us — this period might test our emotional fortitude, all the more so because there is uncertainty around when this experiment in social isolation will end.
According to The Depression Project, isolation has the capacity to and is already triggering a number of mental health issues as a result of:
- decreased financial security
- social withdrawal and loneliness
- fear the health of our loved ones
- anxiety over catching COVID19
- a survival mindset
- less distractions
- lack of control and feelings of hopelessness
It’s no wonder that solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment at many prisons — one that has been found to cause anguish, provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation.
Focus on What You Can Control
A lack of control is one of the key contributing factors to stress, as outlined above.
Researchers have documented how essential a sense of control is for mind and body alike, with some psychologists having gone as far as saying that the deepest need people have is for a sense of control.
To get through this without losing wits , we’ll need to make like a Stoic philosopher, and focus on what we can control, instead of on what we can’t — doing so empowers us rather than victimises us.
To avoid becoming a Hyde to your Jekyll, below I offer a stocktake of what we can control — or at least influence. And with a little more time on our hands than usual, perhaps this is even an opportunity to come out the other side as better versions of our current selves.
Socialise Online — with video
While we’re advised against socialising in the physical domain, it doesn’t mean we can’t socialise online. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean texting your friends or shooting them IG messages — what I mean is video-calls.
Why video calls? Because human beings evolved for face-to-face contact, and text is no substitute for the emotional wellbeing that the former provides.
If participants are within three feet of their camera, video-calls can have a visceral component to them that lights up our brains in a way similar to that of a face-to-face conversation.
If you want to make it extra fun, host a party, and have everybody in the call order take-out and drinks, and make an hour or two out of it. Or just engage in a heart-to-heart with a few close friends on how this entire thing is affecting them.
Now is a great time to create — to draw, to start a podcast, to write blogs or poems, to build things, to write songs, whatever your poison.
A team of researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found that people who were engaged in more creative activities than usual on one day reported increased positive emotion and flourishing the next day, while negative emotions didn’t change.
This might be because when we’re creating, we tend to be completely immersed in the activity — in flow even — with the rest of our world, and our worries slipping away. The act of deep immersion in one task also releases powerful neurochemicals that put us into a blissed out state.
It’s one of the reasons why I personally try to write every day!
The days of meditation being perceived by the mainstream as ‘new age mumbo jumbo’ are long gone. Today, thanks in part to smartphone apps and personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Joe Rogan singing its praises, meditation has well and truly hit the mainstream.
The benefits of meditation are wide-ranging: it can reduce ageing and stress, increase your attention span and immunity, improve your metabolism and brain function, help you build better relationships, increase your appreciation of life, help you get a good night’s rest and make you, and by extension the people around you, happier.
On the physical side, meditation lowers high blood pressure and reduces anxiety attacks, tension-related pain, ulcers, insomnia, and muscle and joint problems, while increasing serotonin production, which improves mood and behaviour, strengthening the immune system and increasing energy levels as you gain an inner source of energy. Above all, though, meditation supports personal transformation, emotional steadiness and harmony with the world.
Check out the free trials that smartphone apps like Calm or Headspace offer if you’re unsure how to start.
Nowadays, most of us find ourselves sitting down at our desks, staring at LED screens for eight to ten hours a day, before sitting down on our couches in the evenings, staring at an LED screen for a few hours more .
Movement — not necessarily a gym session — has been shown to decrease anxiety and ward off depression, memory loss and more.
When you move, your caveman brain recognises movement as a moment of stress. It thinks you’re fighting an enemy, or fleeing, and as such, it releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This ultimately acts as a reset switch, which is why we feel happier after exercising or going for a walk.
It could be as simple as taking a walk.
As researchers from the University of Illinois found, the brain lights up like a Christmas tree after a short walk which echoes what Roman philosopher, Seneca said two millennia ago: “we must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air”.
What you put into your body can help you to maintain a clear and level head — and now is a great time, again, to develop better and cleaner eating habits.
While those who are dogmatic about nutrition may tell you that you need to get 80 per cent of your calories from fat, or all of your calories from plants, or all of your calories from ‘paleo’ foods or even all of your calories from meat, the reality is that each one of us is different, with our own unique biophysiology and our own unique lifestyles, and that we should try different things to see what works for us.
If you want a little more actionable advice, here are author Michael Pollan’s ‘7 Rules for Eating’ in a nutshell:
- Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t have existed when your great-grandparents were alive.
- Don’t eat anything that contains more than five ingredients or anything that you can’t pronounce.
- Shop in the outer parts of the store, where the fresh foods are usually found.
- Only eat food that will rot if you don’t eat it.
- Stop eating before you feel full.
- Have regular meals, with your family members — around a table, not in front of the TV.
- Don’t buy food at the petrol station because you’re likely to eat it in the car.
As Pollan says, ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’.
Maybe it’s even time to learn to cook something new?
In his best-selling book Why We Sleep, Matt Walker finds that sleep deprivation shows a 60 per cent amplification in emotional reactivity. With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between what Walker calls our emotional gas pedal (our fight or flight inducing amygdala) and our brake (our prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost.
He tells us that healthy people can experience a neurological pattern of brain activity similar to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder if they have their sleep disrupted or blocked.
Want to get a better night’s rest? Check out my short piece below.
Helping others takes the focus off ourselves, and also leaves us feeling happier for extended periods of time.
One team of sociologists found that Americans who described themselves as ‘happy’ volunteered for at least 5 hours per month.
Perhaps you have vulnerable elderly parent, aunt or neighbour who you could do grocery runs for during this time — or perhaps, spare a roll of toilet paper for?
Have Sex — just make sure it’s COVID19 free
Ever since Salt-N-Pepa released their hit single in 1990, sex has become less a stigma and more a widely accepted, and widely enjoyed, staple of life. But it’s more than just something that feels good; having regular sex has numerous neurological benefits that ultimately serve to help us enjoy life more.
Firstly, sex (and to a degree, cuddling) releases a cocktail of neurochemicals — serotonin, dopamine and endorphins as well as oxytocin (the social bonding hormone) — leaving us feeling confident and happy.
Feel free to share this with your partner if you must!
Discover New Music
Perhaps you’ve been listening to the same old albums since you were in your teens?
Perhaps you’ve just been dishing up whatever mainstream radio has thrown at you?
Well, with a world of music at our fingertips thanks to streaming services like Spotify, it’s an awesome time to discover new music, or even deep dive into the discography of artists you’ve heard so much about but never really got around to exploring?
As a lifelong headbanger, I recently did the latter with, would you believe it, Kanye West’s discography? Surprisingly (for me), I enjoyed going down the Yeezy rabbit hole — especially when I came across a Black Sabbath sample in Hell of a Life. A change is as good as a holiday!
Speaking of music, if you heed these lessons, you might end up looking a feeling a little more like Motley Crue’s Vince Neil on day one of isolation, as opposed to day 30, below!
Learn Something New
There’s no excuse not to learn something new nowadays with tens of thousands of courses available online and accessible at the click of a button. Heck, you could learn a bunch just from trawling YouTube videos!
But if you really want to learn new skills, do something with a practical element to it, such as coding, playing an instrument, or gardening.
The feeling of moving towards a goal, and progressively improving as we get closer to it, releases the feel-good chemical, dopamine.
Not only that, but by immersing ourselves in challenging pursuits — and sticking with them when the going gets tough — we become humbled and develop a better relationship with adversity, something that will benefit us in the game of life.
Further to learning something new, you might also like to pick up some classics by Hemingway or Hunter S Thompson, or just read some books that will benefit you in a more tangible way — such as business, marketing or self-development books.
Here’s a snap of my current COVID19 reading list!
It’s one thing to move, but where you choose to move also affects your physiology, and ultimately, how you feel.
We might be practicing social distancing, but for many of us we can still go outside — and if we can go for hikes in nature, even better!
- Get some sun
Exposure to sunlight in the morning elevates mood by boosting serotonin levels in our body, which makes us perform better when we get down to work.
- Take your shoes off
A 20-year body of research has found that the human body demonstrates positive physiological responses to grounding — walking barefoot on sand or grass — benefitting our mood, sleep, blood circulation and energy while decreasing bodily inflammation and free radicals in the body.
At its core, grounding helps us connect to the earth’s subtle negative electrical charge, which, when absorbed, acts like an antioxidant and can help to create a stable, internal, bioelectrical environment for the normal functioning of the body, according to a report in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health.
- Hit up mother nature
Hiking— or ‘forest bathing’, as its mental benefits have come to be known — has been linked to more relaxation, less stress and more insights with which to navigate our work and personal lives.
I tend to try and get out for a two-hour hike in the forest at least once a month, and go for daily walks in a local park, which does wonders for my sense of emotional wellbeing.
In fact, 94 per cent of adults surveyed said that 20 minutes in a park boosted feelings of wellbeing, while the practice decreased cortisol levels and lowered depression levels in adults.
Optimise Your Finances (as best you can under the circumstances)
While some of us might be staring down the barrel of pay-cuts, or worse still, redundancies, the more fortunate among us might like to take this time to optimise our finances.
This might include:
- setting up automated savings plans
- bumping up our superannuation and 401K contributions
- negotiating lower interest rates
- investing in discounted stocks or index funds
- rebalancing our portfolios, and dumping any likely-to-default investments
Note: The above does not constitute financial advice and you should seek independent financial, legal and tax advice before making any decisions.
You don’t need to be scaling a mountain to get into the flow state — you could just as easily be playing FIFA 2019, especially if it’s against a friend, online.
Video games can capture our attention for long periods of time, come with a host of cognitive benefits, and are — let’s face it — plain fun!
Reflect on your life
Far too many people squander their talents and wind up on their deathbeds wishing that they either didn’t work so hard, or had actually lived a life true to themselves — these are two of the five major regrets, according to palliative care nurse and author of Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware.
We tend to be a lot more careful about how we spend our money than our time, but time, unlike money, cannot be earned back once we’ve spent it. As Seneca put it, “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it”.
Perhaps it’s time to stop and reflect?
If you’ve never picked up any philosophy or asked life’s big questions, well there’s nothing like a global pandemic and forced isolation to get you to do just that.
Some schools of philosophy ultimately act as an operating system with which you can navigate your way through life, and also serve as a mechanism to keep you grounded.
Whether it’s Plato, Socrates or Aristotle, Kant, Hagel or De Botton, you’ll find something in all of the great works of philosophy that can have a truly profound impact on your life.
In the case of Stoicism — it has been a source of strength for me because it has forced me to concede that I alone have control over my interpretations of external stimuli, and how I choose to respond. Our judgments can color our experience of life, and by changing our judgments and perceptions, we can change our experiences for the better.
If you’ve not picked up a single book of philosophy before, check out Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Watch Some Films
What a great time for streaming services — whether it be Netflix, Stan, Prime or YouTube Premium — we have petabytes of content within arms reach.
Whether it be contemporary pop-culture flicks such as The Avengers, the noir of foreign dramas such as Parasite, or classics such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket — now is the time to watch.
Having said that…
Don’t Binge Netflix or IG Feeds All Day
It might be tempting to do nothing but binge Netflix, and mindlessly scroll through Instagram — don’t.
People don’t get into the uplifting flow state during passive leisure activities such as watching television or relaxing.
Some passive activities even produce a state of mild depression. For example, when binge-watching a Netflix series, your brain can fall into a trance-like state — the alpha brain waves minus the benefit of the theta brain waves that are present in the flow state.
I’ve caught up on quite a few standup comedy specials myself (I’m loving Chris D’Elia’s stuff!) — but you’ll feel better for longer if you do so while also partaking in some of the above-mentioned activities — especially the meta-habits such as sleep well, eat well and move.
Go on a COVID19 News Diet!
Instead of spending countless hours each day consuming nothing but COVID19 news, limit the amount of time you spend consuming just COVID19 news (and tweets!).
Yes, it pays to be informed, but being informed quickly degenerates into being overwhelmed, and winding up feeling helpless and leaving you back at square one.
Instead… how about you go for a walk?