Coping with self-isolation is one of the biggest challenges we'll face in 2020. So how do we preserve relationships with our partners, housemates or families while stuck in communal confinement?
My one bedroom apartment is light-filled with ample storage for books. It has a great kitchen and fantastic water pressure. It is by no means, however, a sprawling abode. The bedroom is small and the ‘outside feature’ is a modest balcony. Perfectly proportioned for my partner and I to inhabit under normal circumstances, when we're both able to leave it five days a week for work. But we aren’t living under normal circumstances. When we originally signed the lease I didn’t consider that we’d potentially be spending weeks at a time confined within its four walls due to a global pandemic. And yet, here we are.
By this past Monday morning I had encountered the term ‘self-isolate’ approximately 467 times. I arrived home from my office, surveyed the surrounds and wondered aloud to my partner, “Do you think if we were forced to quarantine ourselves in our apartment for two weeks we would break up?” “No,” he said immediately and without elaboration (a great insight into how our respective minds work).
I’m not overly proud that this is where COVID-19 panic has taken me; rather than ponder the state of my immune system I’m ruminating on the state of my relationship. Would this bring us closer together – a united front in uncharted territory? Or be the catalyst for our undoing – a cabin fever-induced reckoning of sorts?
I’m lucky to live with only one other person (who cares about my mental wellbeing and respects my boundaries). But a lot of people share their abodes with multiple family members or housemates, and (in general) a mandatory shut-in does not a happy home make.
“We aren’t made to be isolated,” explains Noosha Anzab, a practicing psychologist with online health platform, Lysn. “Being inside without the exposure to sun impacts our circadian clock – it disrupts our mood, our appetite and definitely our temperament, so we can tend to feel more depressed and experience impaired health.” We also might find ourselves lashing out at our cohabitants. “Spending too much time in a confined space with the same person or people can lead to their endearing qualities becoming quite irritating, and that might cause us great difficulty.”
So how do we navigate this period of personal exile without ruining our friendships or romances? Anzab recommends establishing some ground rules when coping with self-isolation. “Boundaries are wonderful, and certain ground rules at the start of a period of self-isolation or quarantine might mean physical boundaries around closeness, keeping a distance that feels safe, and determining a safe space to spend some alone time in wherein we can engage in some self-care,” she explains. “We might be stuck inside with our family but it’s important we also get some alone time. Setting rules with family around exchange of information, screen time, or topics to discuss and refrain from, is also a good idea.”
I’m not saying this will definitely happen to you, but chances are emotions are going to run high. What are some ways we can broker peace during a lock-in? An easy start: breathing. “It almost seems too easy to say, but breathwork is a wonderful tool to use to ensure we stay grounded and to diffuse tension whilst in a period of isolation,” says Anzab. “Breathwork … particularly if we breathe in, and double our exhale rate, can really restore balance to our stress response systems. To calm our agitated mind, we can breathe in a slow and controlled manner to promote the decrease of activity in our neural circuit, rather than breathing fast and erratically which increases activity and in turn influences our emotional state.”
Communication is also key. “You can never over-communicate, but using statements like “I feel x because of y” will help not only share your experience of self-isolation but can also ensure your communication is clear. Tending to self-care, engaging our intelligence and/or creativity and maintaining as much normalcy in routines are also crucial. Having a self-soothing plan involving communication with friends and family via online means, engagement in online therapy and establishing goals can also help in keeping the tension at bay.”
Intimacy and COVID-19
A relationship is as much a living, breathing thing as a pet or a plant or a child. It must be listened to, tended to and nourished. So how do we keep the romance alive when we’re in forced confinement? “Continuing gestures of kindness and acts of appreciation are simple ways of telling our partners we care about them. We can increase love maps … despite being in a lockdown or a midst a pandemic. We can share fondness and admiration towards one another, and ensure we are turning towards one another rather than turning away from each other. Thankfully for the world wide web, there is a plethora of love map increasing activities available online and many fun conversation starter-based lists of questions which you can work through with your partner, that can really help gain a greater personal insight to the other person and this can make us feel more connected, despite being in isolation together."
Greetings from Milan
My friend Saskia and her partner Jack are currently living in Milan. They're going into their fourth week working from home and day 10 of forced lockdown. They’re allowed to venture outside for groceries and exercise only. And as far as advice on intensive cohabitation, I figured she’d be the one to ask. “We’ve been really trying to treat this time like a luxurious (enforced) holiday together,” she explains via email. “We’ve also been running with the mentality of, “If it’s gonna keep you happy for now, go for it.” While that probably wouldn’t work in the long term, right now it’s kind of essential. And it’s really important not to be judgdy about whatever weird impulse your partner has on that particular day. You want Cheerios for lunch? No worries! Feel like staying in your pyjamas all day, brilliant. Wanna play Beyoncé at full volume (your neighbours’ sanity pending …) and dance around the kitchen, go nuts!”
We’re all in this together
Of the inevitable bouts of self-pity that creep in during times of global uncertainty, Saskia recommends flexing our empathy muscles. “It’s also really good to remember that this is a tough time, and that you’ll feel crappy about it every now and then,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll just want to wallow in the crappiness, in spite of your partner wanting to make you feel better. Understand that if you (or they) need to go into another room, shut the door and have some alone time, that’s totally fine. Let them know you’re there (literally, since you can’t go anywhere else) if and when they feel like talking it through. Also remember, you don’t have to do everything with each other. If you want to put in your headphones and watch something your partner hates, don’t feel bad about doing so. Alternatively, maybe try doing something together that you’d normally do by yourself. I’ve been reading my book out loud to Jack before we fall asleep, which is actually becoming a really lovely ritual. I listen to his podcast recommendations (Swindled) and he listens to mine (The High Low).
In all seriousness, COVID-19 is significant and coping with self-isolation is something we are all still learning. If you have any tips or ideas, let us know via our Instagram and Facebook pages. Remember to keep your immune system in check. If you're stuck for ideas on how to stay sane while killing time at home, check out the best of our RUSSH Round-Ups. Stay informed with your health department’s latest recommendations and help out those in need wherever possible.