Just looking for tips? Scroll down to see my personal recipe for self-improvement and peace during quarantine. And feel free to hit the comments with additional ideas you think others could benefit from.
“Quarantine” is not quite the right word for the situation we’re in, but it’s the one we’re using. Most of us are not actually in quarantine. “Social distancing” is the correct term but that’s inexact and sterile; it fails to convey the emotional weight the practice forces upon us. Only able to leave our homes for essential activities and required to maintain six feet between people when out of the home: the feeling is not just of distance but of isolation.
If, like me, you live alone and do not have a partner, you are being asked to go weeks without actual human contact. It may be months, or worse, before it’s allowable again. Nothing so much as a hug or a handshake, not to mention the deeper physical connections that can be so comforting. It may not be quarantine in a legal sense, but it certainly is in an emotional sense.
This isolation will have a major, negative effect on everyone’s mental health, not just those of us with a history of emotional struggle. For me, it already has.
Two weeks ago, when the reality began to set in that COVID-19 would fundamentally change the way we live our lives, I had a major anxiety event. (As honest and open as I am about my mental health, I still struggle to call this by its name: a panic attack.) This was after my employer ordered everyone to work from home, but before Los Angeles or California declared their “safer-at-home” orders. Materially, I had no doubt I would be fine through this. I wasn’t worried about the isolating effects yet, and I have no children to worry about either. I was healthy and my job was safe. It was indeed work that caused the anxiety, but it was not the anxiety many others are experiencing as our economy is uprooted and millions lose their jobs.
The work stress continues but the most severe of the anxiety went away after a few days, the chest pains finally disappearing and my breathing eventually becoming easier. As the attack began to ebb, I confronted the reality of the situation and resolved to look at it as an opportunity.
This could be an opportunity, I told myself, to slow down, to take care of my body and my mind. It could be a time to identify the things I value the most and to pursue those, on my own time, in my own space. I resolved to meditate and stretch and exercise. Though running is essential to my mental health, maybe I would stop for a little while and deal with some musculoskeletal imbalances that have caused recurring injuries.
That first week, I did many of these things. Though work was stressful and my days were long, I exercised several times daily. I set up a video chat with a friend who’s a doctor of physical therapy and got some tips for dealing with this pesky bursitis. I read two books in six days and wrote a short story. I bought some bourbon and I indulged in a daily tipple but never felt like I needed it medicinally. I scheduled video calls with friends: I had dinner with one and happy hour with another and Sunday brunch with a group. On Instagram, we shared memes and we checked in and we tagged each other in chains of pushups. It was fun, in a way, and I felt like I was flourishing socially, able to strengthen friendships and make new ones without spending any money.
My second week didn’t go as well. Work was not so bad but the bourbon felt more necessary. I didn’t read or write. I overslept every day but was always tired. I rarely exercised. My stretching and physical therapy work fell by the wayside. On Thursday, I learned that a friend — the wife of one of my best friends — was in the hospital with COVID-19. The week hadn’t necessarily been bad before that, but that shook me. I got drunk that night, a little aggressively, and then again Friday night. I awoke Saturday feeling tired, headachy and sorry for myself.
I was living my basest, laziest life. I wasn’t feeling depressed or anxious, so it wasn’t me at my worst, but I also wasn’t flourishing. This was me without any long-term plan, without any worldview, without any purpose.
I don’t like that version of myself, so I’m not going to be him. Entering week three of this, I’m going to be better. This is how:
· Eat well and drink less. The second week of quarantine, I ate poorly, in addition to drinking more. I’m happiest when I eat a small breakfast, a fine lunch and dinner, and several healthy snacks throughout the day. I’ll get back to that. Additionally, I will not drink during the week. That was my practice before quarantine, and again, it’s what makes me happiest.
· Journal (almost) every day. Last summer, a friend basically forced me to start journaling again. I followed his orders but still, I don’t do it as often as I’d like. I’m not going to make this a daily commitment, but I want to shoot for 15 minutes a day at least four days a week.
· Research and learn more about my passion. I want to be a running coach. Most of what I know, though, is just from my own experience, what I’ve learned when researching my own training plans, or the USA Track & Field coaching certification course I took last year. I want to — need to — continue my education. (I’m passionate about more than just running, but I think focus is needed here; I don’t have time to educate myself on everything I love.)
· Exercise in the morning, again at lunch, and stretch twice during the workday. I’m happiest when I exercise first thing in the morning, but I can also make time for a quick burst of activity at lunch. (That will be beneficial screen-free time, too.) And I can break once in the morning and again in the afternoon to stretch.
· Meditate after work. Last week, I realized I was struggling to transition from work mode into evening me-time. That’s part of why I poured a bourbon, to signify the workday was over and to relax. Instead — and more healthfully — I will meditate for 10 minutes when work ends.
· Read for an hour before bed. This is another practice I developed before quarantine began that makes me happy. Books are my first love and I want to go to bed with one every night.
If I do all of the above, each day will be full but I’m okay with that. I tend to be a little more regimented in my day-to-day than most people — at least when I’m living the life I want to. It’s worth it to achieve my goals of getting better emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually.
If you have similar goals, do not take any of this as something prescriptive. At most, I hope that this can be an inspiration, an opportunity to consider what will work for you.