How to stay mentally healthy during coronavirus quarantine

As coronavirus spreads, many of us face a prolonged period stuck indoors. Here's how to keep on top of your mind if you have to self-isolate

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How to stay mentally healthy when you're self-isolating quarantine coronavirus lockdown at home
The government has advised people with a mild cold to self-isolate for a week. Although this protects our physical health, what does it mean for our mental wellbeing? Credit: Jacob King/PA

Self isolation. Solitary confinement. Time alone. However you chose to phrase it, the prospect of being shut off from the rest of the world is alarming. And as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, it looks like social isolation is now the new normal - not just for the UK - but for many people around the world. 

With scientists citing sticky office keyboards and crowded commutes as hotspots for bacteria to spread, shutting down workplaces, non-essential shops and schools has been one of they key strategies in “flattening the curve” of infection rates. The elderly, who are more at risk of contracting a severe strain of the virus, were the first to be advised to stay at home.

While social isolation preserves our physical health, the loneliness it brings could present a challenge for our mental wellbeing. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, approximately nine million people in the UK say that they often feel lonely, with many struggling to make lasting, social connections with others. In a study undertaken by the British Red Cross in 2017, almost a fifth of individuals stated that they don’t have friends that they can turn to in times of need. 

Of course the distinction must be made between if you’re physically ill, where presumably your time will be spent recovering in bed and taking medicine, and if you’re isolating when healthy.

As we all practice self-isolating over the coming weeks, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that you not only protect your body, but your mind too. 

Structure your day

List-making has long been a go-to practice for those who feel overwhelmed by the tribulations of everyday life. Nicola Hett is a psychotherapist and executive coach based in London. She said despite being locked inside, one of the keys to staying healthy is “creating some sense of output" – however trivial it may seem. 

“It’s important to create some sense of timetable for each day – what I call meaningful activities” she says. “This can be anything: outstanding housekeeping tasks, DIY, catching up on reading novels, or trying something you have always wanted to do, like creative writing.”

By making a list, we can replicate the “external timetable” from work that motivates us each day, and combat the inevitable feelings of purposelessness that accompany self-isolation. Your stroll to the water-cooler could even be supplemented for a walk to the tap in your kitchen. 

"People will play with this in different ways; it might be that you set yourself a timer, or it could be as simple as creating a to-do list, but not beating yourself up if you don't achieve it, because you can always do some more tomorrow."

Exercise

Coronavirus might be an excuse to skip your weekly spin class at the gym, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop exercising all together. It’s been proven that working out has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our mental health, and can even alleviate negative emotions, such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

“Exercise is very good for mental wellbeing, because it sends endorphins around the body, which can change us from a negative state of mind into a more optimistic state of mind” says Nicola. “Obviously you can’t run indoors, but you can jog inside and that might create the equivalent sense of wellbeing. It might be that people can even use technical tools to replicate the experience of being outside - such as a nature scene on the TV.”

Chris Worth is a copywriter who regularly works from home. He says that although he is “naturally introverted,” his key to staying "sane" is exercise.

“I’ve got grip trainers, kettlebells, and a pull-up bar within metres of my desk,” he says. “A great risk to mental wellbeing is the ‘cabin fever’ of feeling locked-in and unable to move properly. So I make sure the day is punctuated with plenty of calisthenics moves.”

A good idea is to use at home exercise routines on apps such as Class Pass, or on DVDs, which allow you to exercise from the comfort of your sitting room. 

Maintain social contact 

There's a reason solitary confinement is used for hardened criminals. Social interaction is key to keeping our mind healthy, and can provide welcome relief from the trials of everyday life. Without proper social stimulation, feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression can rapidly set in.

Of course, in isolation socialising can be tricky. But that doesn’t mean you have to shut yourself off from the world forever. One of the benefits of our hyper-digital age is the ability to connect with anyone around the globe in a matter of seconds. 

“It’s really important to have some social contact with somebody outside of the house everyday – whether it’s over the telephone, on Skype, or talking to a neighbour outside of the home,” says Nicola. “It might be good in those times to talk about the struggles you’re experiencing, but it’s also important to focus on the positive things, so you’re not just dwelling on the difficulty that brings the mood down.”

One practical tip Nicola suggests is creating a Whatsapp group, either for close friends and family, or for people in your local community. That way you can check in with others at certain times throughout the day to see how they’re doing, and also share tips about what is working for you.

 

Don't catastrophise

Of course, there is a flipside to this. While the prominence of social media sites such as Twitter, and 24-hour news, mean we are never truly alone, when it comes to self-isolation, there's a potential benefit in limiting your screen-use.

“One of the biggest challenges to our mental health in this virus crisis is the tendency of anxiety to get us caught up in catastrophising. That is, going straight to the worst possible scenario,” says Wendy Bristow, a London based psychotherapist. “A lot of the news and material on social media gives us plenty to feed this tendency.  Then if we get into the fear that our loved ones may die or that we ourselves may be horribly ill that just makes anxiety worse.”

If you’re on your own at home, Wendy suggests going out for a walk in a non-crowded place to stop yourself overthinking

If that isn’t an option, Wendy recommends “breathing more deeply and slowly” to curb increased feelings of anxiety. “There are free apps like Breathe2Relax which demonstrate the type of breathing that is scientifically proven to help calm us down,” she says. 

In addition to this, laughter can be a powerful antidote to anxiety in a time of crisis. Nicola recommends switching off the news for a funny Netflix or YouTube show, which can help ease feelings of tension. Crafts, hobbies, and crosswords can also provide welcome distractions from the screen.

Accept a lack of control 

"Another way this virus crisis is affecting our mental health is to make us feel powerless and out of control,” says Wendy. “We all like to think that our lives are proceeding in a way we have control over and none of us know what will happen with this.”

One step to combating this is to accept the lack of control we have over the situation.

"We all need to be resilient and robust as we can through this. Worrying you won’t deal with it only makes things feel harder,” explains Wendy. "It might sounds counterintuitive, but if we let ourselves feel things, the difficult emotions generally pass more quickly."

Easier said than done, perhaps. If you find yourself hankering for information, the most sensible thing to do is check authoritative websites, such as The World Health Organisation (WHO), for up to date and accurate information that will keep things in perspective. 

Abigail Barnes, founder of Success by Design Trainin, has been in self isolation for two days. She says one of the ways she copes with feeling a lack of control is taking "dance breaks" where she can play music loudly and "dance like a crazy person."

"It sounds odd, but it's amazing," says Abigail. "Pick your favourite tune, crank it loudly and dance like you don't care and as if no one is watching. I'm doing this with exercise, meditation and breathing exercises, which all help me to choose joy over panic."

 

Eat well

As panic levels rise around the UK, you have most likely been – or know of someone who is – stockpiling. Whether that's shyly adding a few more tins than normal to an Ocado order, or clearing out Tesco’s entire Andrex selection, it's happening at alarming levels.

Of course, eating plenty of delicious food is essential to coping with life on lock-down. Carbohydrates can be particularly comforting; nothing says 'hankering down' like a duvet and binge-eating a pack of chocolate digestives.

But before you reach for that third biscuit, take note. A key part to keeping yourself mentally healthy during self-isolation is your diet. Nicola says that although our “natural instinct might be to comfort eat,” we should really be reaching for foods that are rich in “antioxidants, such as green tea, fruit and vegetables.” This will keep sluggish feelings at bay, and improve overall feelings of positivity. 

Saying that, it might be better to sit away from the fridge all together. Regular work-from-homers say temptation to snack is rife, so stationing yourself away from any distractions can be an invaluable way of  warding off those extra isolation pounds.