The snow was up to my knees. No one was on the street. And the wind, at -30 C, ripped through my coat through to my bones. This was my hike around the block to the coffee shop. There, I’d speak to only human I would that day as I ordered my coffee.
Suffice to say, this was not the grand adventure I’d imagined when my partner landed a job in Canada for two years.
I had no friends yet. I’d spent all my savings moving there, so I had no money. And even worse, winter wasn’t three months, like in Winnie The Pooh books. No: it was six months, with the most brutal portion colder than Siberia.
And so I was housebound. For months and months.
So — I’m really prepared for self-isolation. Because I’ve done it before. For nearly two years.
So I’m going to share things I learned.
Look after yourself
Its a marathon, not a sprint. You need to make sure don’t go postal on day three. Look after yourself physically and mentally so you’re able to last the distance.
It’s proven by science: exercise reduces and anxiety and depression and it’s a great way to stop feeling pent up. With YouTube, there is every 1980s aerobics video, yoga demonstration or boxing class you could imagine. Exercise daily is not just good for the body and mind, but it’s a simple way to build a routine to help give your days structure.
It’s also very real to experience grief: you’re grieving for a time that was, grieving for routine and stability lost. That’s 100% normal. Talk to supportive friends about how you’re feeling, talk to a GP, therapist or a service like Lifeline if you need to.
Science has also shown that meditation and journaling are great ways to reduce anxiety and depression. Bonus: they’re free!
You can rewire the pathways in your brain to see the positive things more easily if you practise gratefulness regularly (here’s the science). I set a reminder in my calendar to list three things I was grateful for every day. And it got easier to see the positives over time.
Yes, I was stuck at home in a foreign country with no money, no friends and no way to get home for two years. But I had my cat. I had my health. I had the internet.
Even more than that, I tried to reframe the endless days into a positive: what did I have in abundance? Time. It’s something I would have cried for two years before in a busy corporate job. So I did my best to make the most of every single day (cue the next point).
For me, I found keeping busy helped. I started taking online courses – both to get better at my job and for hobbies. I started writing. I wrote a whole book. I learned to cook: something which was a necessity because I simply couldn’t afford takeout. But now – I’ve got a heap of skills I just didn’t have before and I relish the opportunity to DIY anything.
At first, I struggled with ideas to keep busy – but I came up with a big dream and then broke down the little steps I needed to achieve that dream — and discovered a whole heap of the little tasks I could do at home already. Want to travel to South America? Learn Spanish online. Want to write a novel? Start with a paragraph a day. Want to run a marathon? Start with some youtube videos at home to build up your cardio. It made it much easier to be motivated to hobbies and projects if I knew these little tasks were working towards something big.
It’s only when you’re alone do you realise how critical human connection is. Humans have evolved to be social creatures – we need human connection. While I had few opportunities to connect with people in person in Canada (other than the chat to the barista for my morning coffee!), but I found a great connection with others by listening to podcasts about my hobbies, joining Facebook Groups around things I wanted to learn and setting regular video calls with friends.
Now, in the time of COVID-19, I’m seeing people being even more creative and hosting virtual drawing afternoons, craft sessions and nights out – except, obvs, nights in (because staying home saves lives, yo.).
So what’s the key lesson?
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. What happens when you spend months without the things you love?
Well, you realise what’s actually important in your life. And you can choose to do less of the things based on habit that doesn’t fulfil you, and more of the things that help you live a rich life.
Maybe you discover don’t want to watch that latest episode of Tiger King on Netflix, but perhaps you want to finish that crossstitch for your niece. Or join that soccer club. Or launch a business. Or volunteer at that community group you never really found time for before.
When I can back from my time in Canada in my own “self-isolation”, I spent a lot more time doing the things that are truly important to me, because I now understood what life is like without them. I started volunteering more. And joining community groups. And cooking. And writing.
For those in social isolation now, it’s a time of reflection, yes, but it can also be a time of rest, or of creativity, growth, inspiration, connection and community. We just do these things a little differently now.
Yes, our society will be impacted by COVID-19 for a while. But it won’t be forever. Heck, social isolation is (fingers crossed!) meant to be over in 90 days. So when you can go outside again and see your friends, which ones are you going to spend time with? Which places will you visit? Which hobbies will you spend more time doing?
The gift of this time is reflection. From today, we can live our lives with much more intentionality about the things that are important to us.
Because how spend our days is how we live our lives.
Come up with a big dream, and think of three things you can do now in self isolation to give you the skills you need so that when things are a little more normal, you’re already on the path there.