We’re all isolating at the moment, as part of the global effort to slow down the spread of Covid-19, but everyone’s experience of this will be very different. The phrase “we’re all in the same boat,” or “we’re all in this together” just doesn’t ring true. It has become abundantly clear that while we’re weathering the same storm, we’re all experiencing it very differently. Some people have lost their jobs, some people have lost loved ones; we might all be isolating - but isolation feels very different for everyone.
It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a difference between isolation and loneliness. The two are tightly associated but they’re not the same. There’s a strong correlation between loneliness and high blood pressure, a decline in cognitive function, poor sleep, and an impaired immune system. Part of the reason why isolation is so devastating to some, is not only because it increases our chances of feeling lonely, but we also suddenly find ourselves stuck with our own thoughts… which can be awful and scary and maddeningly frustrating. Whilst isolation is a physical separation from other people, loneliness is an emotional state that may stem from aloneness, but doesn’t always.
We may be spending this lockdown period with flatmates/housemates or family, and still feel lonely. Here, it’s important to note that feeling lonely is often a symptom of a different problem. We may be feeling lonely because we’re in the habit of relying on outside validation i.e. the approval of others (low self esteem); maybe other people provide a distraction for us from unwelcome thoughts (boredom/anxiety); or maybe we just don’t know how to be on our own because we’re not used to it. It is worth becoming comfortable being alone. There is a huge freedom in this - aloneness (not loneliness) allows us time to reflect, focus fully on what we are doing, or how we are being, thoughts and feelings we have and enjoyment of activities without the distraction of other people, or the concern with their evaluation of us in all these things.
To rid ourselves of this reliance on other people, spend some time intentionally alone. Try something new by yourself, or engage in something you know you enjoy, but never seems worth doing alone. Paint, dance, sing, meditate, exercise, cook. Be mindful - if painful thoughts or feelings break in, acknowledge them and let them pass by without connecting with them. Try doing these things on your own without posting them on social media (this can often serve as another way to gain external validation/approval). Try just doing it for yourself purely for the enjoyment of the actual activity.
Another important aspect linked to this is trying to be alone and content without having to do anything at all. Thinking, reflecting, staring out the window - in other words, being alone with your company and your thoughts - is really valuable time. Lots of ‘a-ha!’ moments come from these periods of solitude and reflecting - try and lean into it.
For those of us who suffer with depression, this can all seem a bit much - and anyway, at the moment, we’re being forced to spend time on our own... so it doesn’t feel like much of a choice. It’s always worth reflecting on where the feelings of loneliness come from. But if you’re not ready to delve into the world of contented solitude, and you weren’t ready to have your social support system whipped out from under you, you might try these instead:
Connect with people who offer genuine support and love - talk to them honestly. Strive for relationships to be authentic and meaningful - this is the nemesis of loneliness!
Engage in something that interests you/used to interest you - If we are experiencing depression, this can be a tough one. Start small if you have to - listen to a podcast, try reading a few pages of something you like. If you have previously enjoyed cooking, try and make yourself some food that you’ll enjoy. If you have ever enjoyed art, try doodling on a page (no evaluation of your work is allowed!).
Journaling - this is a great way of externalising your thoughts and feelings but requiring no other person to hear them (eliminating fear of judgement). You can read over them, imagining you’re your own best friend. It will help you to feel compassionate towards yourself, and build strength and an understanding of your mind
Yoga - Depending on where you are starting from, doing a stretch video on YouTube might make a huge difference to your day - just connecting to your body can change your whole mindset. And trust me on this one, I understand if you feel sceptical because I used to as well. But it just does work. (Yoga also provides a great stepping stone into deeper mindfulness and meditation, connecting you to your body, mind and breathing).
If you’re not into yoga and not ready to try - move your body any way you want to/easily can. Dance, walk, run, do a home workout. Move your body, connect with it. It’ll help you look after yourself in other ways.
As Matt Haig advises: “Experience one beautiful thing a day. Read a poem. Play a favourite song. Watch an old classic movie. Paint the sky. Make a lemon drizzle cake. Whatever. It can be big or small. But do it completely. Read the whole poem. Listen deeply to the song. No day is wasted that contains one total experience of beauty.”