Things You Can Do to Stay Mentally Healthy During Self-Isolation

These past few months have been wild, and not in a good way. 

On February 4th I partially dislocated my knee while playing basketball in Port Vila, Vanuatu. It hurt. A lot.

On the 8th of February, I was medically relocated back to Australia, where an MRI confirmed the extent of the damage. I had ruptured my ACL, torn my meniscus, injured my MCL and fractured my tibia. Surgery was recommended, but the waiting list to see a specialist was lengthy. I worried that I would need to terminate my volunteer role as a Mental Health Specialist at Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health early. Fortunately, a private medical specialist said that I could go on a public waitlist for surgery and medically cleared me to return to Vanuatu to finish my role. I was still in pain, but I could walk and work, and the surgery could wait. 

On March 7th I returned back to Port Vila and was super happy to see everyone again and put my psychological knowledge and skills towards reducing mental illness in Vanuatu.

Around this time, the number of Coronavirus cases began to escalate worldwide. Quickly. Before I had even re-adjusted to life in Port Vila again, the Australian Volunteer Program informed us that the program was being suspended worldwide, and all volunteers would be sent home in the next one to three weeks. 

On the 16th of March, we were told that we would need to pack up all our stuff and book a flight to return to Australia before the 31st of March. On the 19th of March at 6:30pm, we were told that we needed to leave the following day. After living in Vanuatu for 18 months, I did not even have a full day to pack and say a proper goodbye to everyone there, including dear friends, coworkers and patients. It was extremely tough, and something that I am continuing to try and process both cognitively and emotionally. 

architecture buildings clouds daylight

Now that I am back in Melbourne and self-isolating, I suddenly have a lot of free time, no job and no demands except to stay on my property and away from other people.

A lot of the things that we are all being asked to do during the pandemic is almost the exact opposite of what psychologists would normally recommend for people to do. This is especially the case for people with a diagnosable mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. 

For depression, not doing things that we have previously enjoyed and isolating ourselves from others are two of the biggest traps that we can fall into. For anxiety, the biggest trap is continued avoidance of the things that we are afraid of. 

A common psychological intervention for depression with a lot of scientific evidence supporting it is behavioural activation. This means that we push ourselves to try to do the things that we know are likely to be good for us, even if we don’t feel like doing them. For anxiety, the most empirically supported intervention is gradual exposure, or slowly challenging ourselves to face our fears, especially with situations that feel like life or death situations to us but are actually pretty safe. Once we begin doing these things again, we realise that they are actually more enjoyable and less scary than our minds were telling us, and over time it can become easier and easier to do these (and other) activities.

person holding covid sign

What about Coronavirus?

Regardless of where you are in the world, the most important thing that we can do for our physical safety of ourselves and our loved ones is to follow the directives from your government about COVID-19 and the trusted health organisations that are helping to determine these directives in your area. If you are being asked to self-isolate, don’t go outside your property. If you are being asked to work from home and you can, please do, unless you are considered an essential service and you are needed out in the community. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds regularly, or use hand sanitizer if you have access to them. Don’t touch your face and cough into your elbow and away from others. Practice social distancing and stay at least 1.5 metres from others. Don’t hang out in groups or touch or shake hands or hug and kiss others. Wear a mask if you are worried that you have any symptoms. Call the emergency numbers or hotlines in your region if you are concerned about your symptoms and ask medical professionals about what you should do rather than just turn up to clinics or hospitals unannounced. 

Hopefully, most of you know the relevant recommendations in your area by now and why they are important to help flatten the curve. If we can all do our part, it will help to reduce how overwhelmed our medical facilities become with severe or critical COVID-19 cases, which will reduce the overall fatality rate.

don t panic sticker on sign

How Can We Mentally Cope?

The current Coronavirus pandemic does seem to be having a huge psychological impact on people across the globe. Many people were in denial initially or trying to minimise the seriousness of the virus or the impact that they thought it would have. However, once it began to spread more, people began to feel scared, afraid, fearful, anxious, worried, nervous, panicky and overwhelmed about what is going on in the present and what may come in the future. Others report feeling sad, shocked, despondent, hopeless, helpless, or in grief about what they have already lost and what they can do about it at the moment. Or they feel annoyed, frustrated, mad, or angry about what has happened, how it has happened, and the decisions that governments and others are making to try and slow down the spread of the virus.

It is a very difficult time for everyone. 

During my first few days of self-isolation, I think I was still recovering from the panic associated with trying to pack up my life and leave Vanuatu in less than 24 hours. I was in shock maybe, or denial. For the first three days, I didn’t even unpack my bag. I just communicated with friends and family, read some books, worried, played video games, watched Netflix, ate and slept. 

By day four, which was yesterday, enough was enough. I pulled out a notebook, and decided that I would try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. This 100-year-old method to boost productivity is quite simple, with only five steps:

wly_infographic-01

By figuring out what my top 6 priorities were and writing them down, I managed to already feel a lot better and more in control, even before I started actually doing the tasks. I also managed to fly through the tasks and feel productive again for the first time since being back in Melbourne. I resumed my daily meditation practice using the ‘Waking Up’ app. I unpacked my bags and tidied my room. I switched over my SIM card in my phone back to my Australian one. I did some much-needed paperwork online and did a weights workout while watching some TV. It was a good day. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed or unproductive at the moment, try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. Just make sure that you only put six items on the list, and do the most important things first.

Having a schedule or consistent routine is also something that I would highly recommend during this pandemic. Work and school often provides this for us, but if you are at home 24/7, you need to create this yourself. A helpful routine might consist of: 

  • trying to sleep and wake at relatively consistent times,
  • not spending too little or too much time in bed (7-9 hours for adults, more for children),
  • eating regularly with lots of vegetables and not too much junk food or sweets,
  • staying hydrated by drinking enough water and minimising consumption of alcohol, nicotine and illicit drugs,
  • communicating via phone or the internet with at least one friend or family member daily,
  • doing some form of strength training or cardiovascular exercise for 20-30 minutes a day, even if you are confined to a single room,
  • having some daily tasks that give you a sense of achievement, engagement or mastery, and
  • getting fresh air and sunlight regularly if you can do this without breaking any restrictions in your area.

The more that you can build these things into your daily routine, the greater chance there is of maintaining or improving your mental health. Having some activities that we enjoy each day and look forward to doing can also really help.  

lego toy in clear glass container

Which Activities Can Help?

If you still aren’t exactly sure what you can do from day to day at the moment, a pleasant activities list or pleasant activity schedule can help. There are many different ones available online for free, but the one I will use for this article is the ‘Fun Activities Catalogue‘ by the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia. 

Out of the 365 activities listed, there are some that I can definitely not do while in self-quarantine, including going ice-skating, going out to dinner, socialising in person, flying a plane, scuba diving, going on a tour or to the zoo or movies, or playing sport. 

What is surprising though, is just how many items I still can do. Read the list of self-quarantine friendly activities below, and rank on a scale from 1 to 5 how much you think you would enjoy doing the task if you were to do it. If you can’t do that particular item where you are living, just skip it. For this exercise, 1 = I would hate to do this activity, 2 = I wouldn’t really like doing this activity 3 = doing the activity would be okay, 4 = it would be pretty fun to do this activity, and 5 = I would love to do this activity!

  • Spending time in my backyard
  • Watching the clouds drift by
  • Debating with someone online or over the phone
  • Painting my nails
  • Scheduling a day with nothing to do
  • Giving positive feedback about something (e.g. writing a letter or email about good service)
  • Feeding the birds
  • Spending an evening with good friends online or on the phone
  • Making jams or preserves
  • Getting dinner delivered by a restaurant and having them drop it at your doorstep
  • Buying gifts online
  • Having a political discussion online or over the phone
  • Repairing things around the house
  • Washing my car
  • Watching TV, videos
  • Sending a loved one a card in the mail
  • Baking something
  • Taking a bath
  • Having a video call with someone who lives far away
  • Organising my wardrobe
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Lighting scented candles, oils or incense
  • Spending time alone
  • Exercising
  • Putting up a framed picture or artwork
  • Looking up at the stars at night
  • Birdwatching from my backyard or window
  • Doing something spontaneously in the house
  • Going on a picnic in the backyard
  • Having a warm drink
  • Massaging hand cream into my hands
  • Fantasising about the future
  • Laughing
  • Clearing my email inbox
  • Getting out of debt/paying debts
  • Looking at old photo albums or photos on my computer or Facebook
  • Exploring Google Earth
  • Walking around my house and yard
  • Researching a topic of interest
  • Redecorating
  • Donating money to a cause I support
  • Smelling a flower
  • Opening the curtains and blinds to let light in
  • Doing jigsaw puzzles
  • Sorting through old clothes or items that you could donate to a charity eventually
  • Lying in the sun
  • Learning a magic trick
  • Talking on the phone
  • Listening to a podcast or radio show
  • Noticing what I can see in the neighbourhood from my house or yard
  • Doing arts and crafts
  • Sketching, painting
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Doing the dishes
  • Sitting outside and listening to birds sing
  • Watching TED talks online
  • Planning a holiday for the future
  • Playing cards
  • Putting moisturising cream on my face / body 
  • Re-watching a favourite movie
  • Gardening 
  • Going camping in the living room or backyard
  • Entering a competition
  • Doing crossword puzzles
  • Patting or cuddling my pet
  • Cooking a special meal
  • Putting extra effort in to my appearance
  • Doing a favour for someone online
  • Building a bird house or feeder
  • Looking at pictures of beautiful scenery
  • Talking to family members online or over the phone
  • Listening to music
  • Learning a new language using the app Duolingo
  • Taking a free online class
  • Working on my blog or seeing clients via telehealth
  • Washing my hair
  • Singing around the house
  • Creatively reusing old items
  • Stretching
  • Maintaining a musical instrument (e.g. restringing guitar)
  • Buying clothes online
  • Snuggling up with a soft blanket
  • Listening to an audiobook
  • Watching an old stand-up comedy show on Netflix or Youtube
  • Writing down a list of things I am grateful for
  • Teaching a special skill to someone else online (e.g. knitting, woodworking, painting, language)
  • Playing chess using an app
  • Playing video games
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Sending a text message to a friend
  • Doodling
  • Putting a vase of fresh flowers in my house
  • Participating in an online protest or campaign I support
  • Baking home-made bread
  • Walking barefoot on soft grass
  • Watching a movie marathon
  • Skipping/jumping rope
  • Wearing an outfit that makes me feel good
  • Cooking some meals to freeze for later
  • Hobbies (stamp collecting, model building, etc.)
  • Talking to an older relative over the phone and asking them questions about their life
  • Listening to classical music
  • Photography
  • Watching funny videos on YouTube
  • Doing something religious or spiritual (e.g. praying)
  • Making my bed with fresh sheets
  • Lifting weights
  • Early morning coffee and news
  • Planning a themed party for next year (e.g. costume, murder mystery)
  • Wearing comfortable clothes
  • Shining my shoes
  • Trying to act like the characters in my favourite movies or TV shows
  • De-cluttering
  • Arranging flowers
  • Working on my car or bicycle
  • Juggling or learning to juggle
  • Contacting an old school friend
  • Calligraphy
  • Sleeping
  • Playing with my pets
  • Listening to the radio
  • Doing Sudoku
  • Planting vegetables or flowers
  • Surfing the internet
  • Doing embroidery, cross stitching
  • Buying books from Amazon or bookdepository.co.uk
  • Meditating using Smiling Mind or Headspace or Calm or Balance or Waking Up apps
  • Training my pet to do a new trick
  • Planning a day’s activities
  • Waking up early, and getting ready at a leisurely pace
  • Organising my home workspace
  • Writing (e.g. poems, articles, blog, books)
  • Dancing in the dark
  • Reading classic literature
  • Putting on perfume or cologne
  • Reading magazines or newspapers
  • Calling a friend
  • Sending a handwritten letter
  • Reading fiction
  • Meeting new people online by joining groups that you are interested in
  • Doing 5 minutes of calm deep breathing
  • Buying new stationary online
  • Turning off electronic devices for an hour (e.g. computer, phone, TV)
  • Buying music (MP3s, Spotify premium subscription)
  • Relaxing
  • Watching an old sports game (rugby, soccer, basketball, etc)
  • Doing woodworking
  • Planning a nice surprise for someone else
  • Saying “I love you” to someone important in your life online, over the phone or in a letter
  • Making a playlist of upbeat songs
  • Colouring in
  • Doing a nagging task (e.g. making a phone call, scheduling an online appointment, replying to an email)
  • Shaping a bonsai plant
  • Planning my career
  • Reading non-fiction
  • Writing a song or composing music
  • Having a barbecue
  • Sewing
  • Dancing
  • Looking at art online
  • Making a ‘To-Do’ list of tasks
  • Having quiet evenings
  • Singing in the shower
  • Refurbishing furniture
  • Exchanging emails, chatting on the internet
  • Knitting/crocheting/quilting
  • Napping in a hammock
  • Making a gift for someone
  • Having discussions with friends
  • Trying a new recipe
  • Pampering myself at home (e.g. putting on a face mask)
  • Reading poetry
  • Savouring a piece of fresh fruit
  • Eating outside in my backyard
  • Making a pot of tea
  • Using special items (e.g. fine china, silver cutlery, jewellery, clothes, souvenir mugs)
  • Doing a DIY project (e.g. making homemade soap, making a mosaic)
  • Taking care of my plants
  • Telling a joke online or over the phone
  • Discussing books online
  • Watching boxing or wrestling online or on TV
  • Giving someone a genuine compliment
  • Practising yoga or Pilates
  • Shaving
  • Genuinely listening to others
  • Tidying-up
  • Rearranging the furniture in my house
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Buying new furniture online
  • Watching a sunset or sunrise from the balcony
  • Watching a funny TV show or movie
  • Recycling old items
  • Boxing a punching bag
  • Cleaning
  • Daydreaming
  • Learning about my genealogy/family tree
  • Setting up a budget
  • Writing a positive comment on a website /blog
  • Eating something nourishing (e.g. chicken soup)
  • Taking a class online (e.g. Masterclass, Udemy, Coursera)
  • Combing or brushing my hair
  • Writing diary/journal entries
  • Scrapbooking
  • Cooking an international cuisine
  • Reading comics
  • Trying new hairstyles
  • Watching a fireplace or campfire
  • Whistling
  • Working from home
  • Playing board games (e.g. Scrabble, Monopoly)
  • Savouring a piece of chocolate
  • Hunting for a bargain online
  • Buying, selling stocks and shares
  • Buying myself something nice
  • Solving riddles
  • Watching old home videos
  • Making home-made pizza
  • Origami
  • Doing something nostalgic (e.g. eating a childhood treat, listening to music from a certain time in my life)
  • Joining an club online (e.g. film, book, sewing, etc.)

Hopefully there are at least a few items in the above list that you would find fun or would love to do. If so, put them on your to-do-list or build them into your routine somewhere over the next week, and see what happens. If it’s been a long time or you have never done it before, it may be even more fun than you expect once you get started. Just make sure that you give the task a proper go for at least ten minutes before stopping and trying something else. 

people walking near train

 

Conclusion

In the 21st Century, our lives have become extremely busy, full and fast-paced. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now being told that the most helpful thing we can do is stay at home and remain physically distant from others. Unless you are in an essential profession, this could be a time to slow down. To check-in with those that you care most about. To chat for longer and to connect emotionally. To reflect on your life and rediscover what really matters to you. To hope and dream and plan for a better future. And to try things that you otherwise may not have had the chance or the time to do.

 

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

42 thoughts on “Things You Can Do to Stay Mentally Healthy During Self-Isolation

  1. I’m sorry to hear what’s happened Damon, that really sucks. It would have been so hard to have had to rush your goodbyes after adjusting to a new lifestyle.

    Thank you for this informative and helpful post. It’s really helpful.

    Hope everything sorts out for you.

    Kindest,
    Chantelle Elise

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Thank you for this! I found it all very helpful.
    Personally, I am against the isolation, for many reasons. I found your perspective on it interesting.
    (I am also eager to try the Ivy Lee method. Thanks for sharing it!) And while I don’t believe in “safety,” best wishes!

  3. I hope your leg is better. As for this pandemic …. I am not much of a social person – more of a selective one – so I cant say I feel the isolation as bad as others plus having a four year old around at all times doesn’t give me the option of overthinking or getting bored. I do suffer with anxiety and I am scared already of the bad days but for the moment I try to keep myself positive. The green grocers is still opened so I can find fresh fruits and veggies, I decided on trying to workout every day and maybe read a bit more than I usually do 🙂 Keep safe
    Love from UK

    1. I can’t play any sport with my knee anymore unless I get surgery, but that isn’t too much of a concern at the moment. It’s interesting to me how when bigger problems come along the things we used to worry about no longer seem like a big deal. Daily exercise, fresh fruit and veggies and more reading sounds pretty good to me. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. This is good advice. I am alone. But the situation with CV makes it feel like solitary confinement. In recent years I’ve had more anxiety and I will try the Ivy Lee method, just to unlock the feeling of being overwhelmed. There are too many tasks and I have trouble approaching any of it, sometimes having been laid off, with bills and rent coming up in the next few days. I’m excited to feel progress once again. Funny, I was actually making good progress this year and had a day this week where I fell behind. Financial aid is getting set up by my government. I’m getting a financial gift from an old friend. I have a decent job lead from another. Still, getting organized sounds like the best overall option for building the rest of my life. Thanks!

  5. This was a very helpful post! Loved the list of activities to do during this time. There’s only so many things I can clean around my small apartment, so this was very helpful 🙂 Hope your leg is healing and that you’re well!

  6. Sorry to hear about your horrible injury!
    My perspective is rather unusual: as someone who has spent most of the last 30 years isolated by chronic illness ( currently only managing to go out, for food, two days per week), I find it interesting to hear about how healthier people are trying to cope with a slightly similar situation.
    And your post is easily the best one I have read!

      1. Wish I could be more helpful,
        but I don’t think people would want to follow my example!
        It involved giving up all hope of having a normal life, friends or love.
        Struggling toward an acceptance of suffering, alone, forever.
        (Though blogging maintains some digital connection.)

        Your long list of tips is already excellent for practical purposes.

  7. Hello from me Doctor Ashworth I do hope you are having less pain in your knee! I simply don’t know how you are staying, and Hope you become well soon. Somehow “Without knowing all this to come” I have been doing “How to do a Collage or A Vision Board’on my site and the “Benefits of Music” that all can be done, “Alone or with Family” at home not being able to go out at this time with what is going on. And also helpful, “To Rest and Relax” I hope without getting into “low moods and restless”. I am also going to write an article, “How I know to manage with going out to the minimum” and being safe at their homes. I do hope you are able to attend to your knee as soon as possible. Until then, “I wish You Good Health” from Brisbane, Aussie. And Thank You Very much for All the Good work put in and also for All Your Valuable Advice, as a Doctor!

  8. Great Post! Thanks for sharing!
    Despite all the hardships that have come with the current situation, it is heart-warming to see the entire world coming together to fight a common enemy and help each other out, with good thoughts, online resources, and advice. For once in human history, we have an opportunity to rise above boundaries created by us and realize how similar we all are!

  9. I will be honest. I could have used this list a month ago when this crisis. started. Instead the continual breaking news flood of dismal media reports of daily medical tragedies consumed my attention. For example, today I read than one third of respiratory fed patients from Corona die. Do these kind of reports help Americans cope when you feel constantly under siege.

    1. No, I don’t think they help the individual at all who is already worried about the situation. Any media report that says how serious the situation is can only be helpful for people that are not taking it seriously enough. For COVID-19, people that weren’t practising physical distancing or other isolation recommendations could benefit from stories that help them to approach the situation in a more responsible way. For everyone else, it could just lead to excessive worry and panic and even potential helplessness or hopelessness, which isn’t good.

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