We’re all good citizens staying home right now. But it can be rough.
If you’ve ever suffered from depression — most of us have at some point — you might be familiar with the kind of self-isolation that it blankets you with. Choosing isolation feels so natural. Now that we’re all facing weeks at home, more of us than ever before are at risk of suffering from some depressive symptoms if we aren’t used to it as a way of life.
I work as a writer. Articles, speeches, anything “content”. When I’m not getting paid for it, I write for myself. So I spend three or four days a week without human contact. It’s not unusual to meet friends on a Friday without having made eye contact since Wednesday. If I go away to work on my own fiction, it can be even longer. You could say that it’s my job to self-isolate.
As I grew used to it, I figured out ways to go through long periods of solitude and keep a healthy mind. Now that I’ve been doing it for years, I’ve grown to genuinely love it. Here’s a little advice on how you can make it through, and even make the best of your solitary time ahead.
Start your day like a human
Don’t get out of bed and go straight to your desk. Take a shower as soon as possible. End it with cold water for a while. Now you’re feeling human, don’t put back on what you just wore to bed. It sounds obvious now, but by day five a little voice will creep in and start asking “What’s the point?”
The point is to remind yourself that you’re taking today, every day, seriously. Some people put on a shirt. I have a friend who wears perfume to work from home because it makes her feel professional. Others say you should dress for an important meeting. You are, in a way, with yourself.
I say keep it comfortable, somewhere between pyjamas and a suit. Imagine a potential love-interest stopped by (they won’t, deadly virus and all). Would you be embarrassed if they saw you like this? If not, you’re good.
Define your working space
It’s called Home Office for a reason. Make your space feel like it. Pick your dedicated “getting shit done” spot. If you don’t, the line between work and relaxation blurs fast. Keep these two parts of your life as separate as possible.
If you have a desk, use it. Back in London, before I had a desk, I picked a specific chair at the kitchen table. You can do the same. Don’t work on the couch. And never, ever in your bed. That’s for two things only.
Find somewhere you can enter flow, where everything else falls away. My desk is at the window, so the only distraction is a tree blowing in the wind. If you need WiFi, make sure the connection isn’t skittish. Nothing kills a flow worse than the Chrome dinosaur apologising for a dropped connection.
Use your voice (and your face)
Human contact is essential if you want to keep your head together. True, I often go without it for days, but that’s only when I know there’s a Berlin weekend ahead, full of nothing but excessive human contact. It might sound counterintuitive to seeking a flow, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
The trick is to message less and call more. Set aside 45 minute periods of focus (I go on flight mode), then take 15-minute breaks to call people. Video is best, but simple audio is fine. Human faces and voices make people real, helping you to avoid solipsistic syndrome (where you feel alone in the universe).
Exchange voice notes like little letters. Call your parents far more than you think you need — it’ll still be less than they’d like. Don’t talk about how much it sucks to be at home. Talk about what you’re doing, what they are doing, what you’re excited about, what they are excited about. Be excited together.
Pick your people
My mum always used to tell me to surround myself with people who are kind. I never got her point until I overstretched myself with people who sucked more energy than they gave. People who took time and gave back a sense of low-level anxiety.
Use this is as a time of minimal contact to pick your people. Make sure that anyone you speak to makes you feel good. People you can laugh with, have conversations with that make you feel inspired, anything that makes you leave the interaction somehow better than when you went in. If you know who they are, talk to the people who genuinely care about how you are, the kind ones.
Listen to the music (woah-oh)
Too much silence can be oppressive. Without external input, your thought processes can begin to spiral. At times like this, fill your head with music. It bypasses everything and transports you outside the walls of your apartment.
Wake up to something that you’d normally dance to. I have a morning playlist to kicks me into the mood. Disclaimer: if you don’t like disco as much as me (not many people do) then maybe find something less aggressively happy.
For work, pick something that helps put you into a flow. Anything that makes the world fall away until it’s just you and your work. Movie soundtracks are great, as are classical piano playlists or electronic music with no lyrics. There are plenty of YouTube or Spotify playlists, just search for “concentrate”.
You know that exercise brings oxygen to the brain, releases neurotransmitters like endorphins that ease pain and stress. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin to regulate your mood. This is nothing new. And if you’ve broken a leg and been stuck in bed, you’ll know how it can affect your mental health.
Go out for a walk (as I write this, we’re still allowed on the streets in Berlin). I prefer running. I work until the afternoon — when my brain starts to slow — then put on my running shoes. It’s meditative (Murakami got that right) so you can clear out the cabin fever, recharge your brain and reset yourself.
If you can’t go outside (whether you’re on lockdown or simply afraid) then exercise in your apartment. I’m not going to touch the topic of workout regimes at home. Google is your friend here. Move more, feel better.
Eat like you’re not alone
Food is more than food. You know this. But it’s easy to forget with nobody around to judge your five-bowls-a-day cereal habit. I used to eat so much oatmeal that my university housemates called me The Porridge Guy. Really.
Living in Hong Kong I learned to treat food as a ritualistic part of the day, time to disconnect from work, put yourself in another context. Even now, I use it to break up a monotonous day. You might see a theme here — creating as much contextual variation as possible while remaining in the same space.
So when you eat breakfast — or just while coffee brews — set aside some time to eat away from your desk. For all other meals, recognise that cooking is another meditative act of creation that flips you over to a different part of your brain. You don’t have to make something Instagrammable, just take time to focus on what you’re about to put in your face.
Watch all the movies
If music helps you break out of spiralling thought processes, movies take those thought processes and set them aside entirely, while you focus your mind and emotions on people who aren’t you. As the late, great Roger Ebert put it:
“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.”
After a day spent writing alone, I almost always watch a movie. To be clear: not a series, a feature film. That way, it’s an immersive, self-contained story that temporarily puts you in a world outside the realms of your couch. Science fiction is perfect, or anything that put you deep into the lives of the characters
So work through that list of “movies to watch” you have on your phone. Or find a “must-watch” list online. Just skip the disaster movies or anything about a deadly virus. They might feel a little too real.
Read fiction (not self-help)
If movies are a machine for generating empathy, fiction is an exercise in empathy. If it’s done well, you picture the scene, speak the dialogue in your head, smell the room and feel the emotions. You’re really there.
I love this study from back in 2006 that found a connection between reading fiction and increased empathy. Fiction readers had better interpersonal reactivity and were able to interpret the emotions of others more easily.
The opposite was true for people who read mostly non-fiction (business, self-help etc). It makes sense. Non-fiction usually speaks to you directly, so you only exercise your ability to think about yourself. Admittedly, all of that applies to this article… but this is different. Somehow. Probably.
Anyway. While you’re self-isolating, don’t read business or self-help books. Read some fiction before bed, during the day, whenever. It can be classic literature (the ones you lie about having read), the weekly New Yorker stories, or the Harry Potter series for the seventh time. It doesn’t matter as long as you love it. There should be no judgment on enjoyment.
Make celibacy a choice (or not)
I’m incredibly tactile, and it’s hard to describe how good a simple touch of the hand can feel when you haven’t seen anyone in a few days. An exchange of electricity you didn’t know you needed until it flows through you.
Intimate physical contact releases oxytocin, serotonin, and strengthens your immune system, the chemical components of love that you lack when you’re alone. After a little while, you can almost feel them ebbing away.
If you’re living with a partner it’s too late for social distancing, put some of those breaks I mentioned to use (maybe more than 15 minutes). Before you get mad that this is might be unsafe, I’ll hand over to a medical professional, infectious disease epidemiologist Dr Julia Marcus (source):
“If you live with a regular sexual partner and
you don’t have any symptoms, or likely exposure,
sex might actually be a really great way to have fun,
stay connected and relieve anxiety
during this potentially stressful time.”
Yup. And I just want to add that sex is yet another meditative act. You are both entirely there, or you’re doing it wrong. Nothing exists beyond what is communicated between you, and nothing matters outside that space.
If you’re not living with a partner, make it an active decision to take a break from intimate contact. Define a time period that ends after you expect to be back socialising. If it’s your choice, you gain back control. And given space, you get a clearer perception of the relationships in your life.
So if your sex life evaporated when the clubs shut and the hedonism dried up, maybe that’s worth thinking about. Who do you want to call, knowing that sex is out for now? Call them. Start something slow, let it build.
I’m lucky. I’ve spent years building a life around creating things. Articles, stories, speeches or scripts are something I can read it, listen to or watch. Something that has a presence in the world, however small.
Every job adds something to the world, but not every job gives the satisfaction of creation. That’s okay. But you have time now. Find a project for the isolated evenings. Make it something that you can see, hear or touch. Write some bad poetry. Put up some shelves. Draw a weird blobby picture to go on your fridge. Write some mediocre poetry. Start playing the guitar again. Get some plants and don’t kill them. Write some good poetry. Learn German… you’ve been living in Berlin for how long?
Do anything that gives you something to look at when you’re done for the night. Then, when comes to the inevitable question of “what did I do today?” you can look at that thing and say “That. I did that today.”
It’s a terrifying, oppressive and outright weird period of time. But it’s one we can use to get some space, figure some things out and to create some cool stuff we can take with us out into whatever the world will be when it’s over.
Stay safe, wash your hands and stop hoarding toilet paper.