Life on lockdown
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As covid-19 cases surge worldwide and we scramble to limit the spread by closing schools and companies, and cancelling events and banning travel, many of us are left with overarching anxiety about the global pandemic. Should we self-isolate to protect ourselves and our families, will we have to, and what then? Two weeks under house arrest, whether self-inflicted or not, could test many of us.
During this time of uncertainty, while our likelihood of contracting the virus is still relatively low, our normal routines will likely be disrupted and we may be spending less with other people, and more time alone. Jokes have been making the rounds among people wishing they could be sent home for work for weeks or months. But, in reality, “alone” can be a really anxious space for many people, despite myriad possible diversions.
Isolation can bring out the worst but also the best in us. While we may be physically alone for stretches of time—this is true regardless of the communicable diseases around—that does not mean that we have to be feel lonely, hopeless or desperate. Instead, what research studies on solitude – time spent alone and not interacting with others – has taught us, is that steps can be taken to help us cope with, and even appreciate. time spent alone.
First, solitude benefits from structured activities. Basically, we benefit from having something to do other than staring at the walls. Reading, cooking, exercising or skill-building can all be beneficial. Researchers are still learning about that last point, but it seems that when people set a goal –to bake the perfect cheesecake cake or brew the perfect beer, it provides purpose and organization to their activities that make them feel less empty and more rewarded in solitude.
Second, when we find ourselves unexpectedly stuck at home, the experience can be alienating. But countering loneliness can be as simple as reaching out to others with a quick hello by text, email, phone or video. People often worry that digital connections are a hollow substitute for the real thing, but research findings indicate they both help us feel close and cared for by others when alone. Simply having the social connections may matter as much as the conversations themselves, which seems to be particularly true for older adults. We don’t need constant interactions with others to be happy just the opportunity for occasional and meaningful exchanges.
Finally, the way we mentally frame experiences such as isolation, whether self-inflicted or not, matters. If we think of it as something that is done to us, studies show that kind of thinking makes us feel awful. But if we can think of isolation as a decision with value—in this case, to keep members of our household and communities safe—it goes a long way toward making it more palatable. Solitude can be a challenge, lonely or boring at times, but periods spent alone for the purpose of protecting our health is an act of self-care, an act of resilience.
About the authors:
Dr. Netta Weinstein is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Cardiff University in the UK; Heather Hansen is a journalist and researcher at Cardiff University; and Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Durham University in the UK. Together, they are leading SOAR: Solitude, Alone and Resilient, an ERC-funded project to predict well-being during time spent alone.