How to look after your mental health when staying indoors

Setting up regular social interactions to a time and date will hold you accountable, and stop you falling into the bingeing-in-bed trap

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As countries around the world encourage and enforce drastic measures to crack down on the spread of the coronavirus, more people are being urged to stay at home. There are many tips on how to stay productive, at work and otherwise, but while spending our time confined within the same four walls may protect our physical health, it can lead to a strain on our mental well-being. The restrictions will result in complete isolation or leave many of us interacting with the same few people all day.

“Meaningful social connection is vital to every individual’s sense of authentic well-being,” says Dr Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist and clinical director at The LightHouse Arabia. “Loneliness can have a tremendous influence on mental health – it increases the likelihood of negative outcomes in both our physical and mental health.”

As all spheres of life now unite, quite literally, under one roof, here is some expert advice when it comes to looking after your mind, body and spirit, in a professional, social and physical set-up.

Keeping up with the career

As much as a third of our day is dedicated to working – meaning our approach to setting up office at home (without being able to break up the day with a trip to a coffee shop) is extremely important for both our effectiveness and psychological health. Teresa Douglas, co-author of Working Remotely, Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams, says: "Structure is very important. When you don't have a place to go to do your work, you need to rely on your routine to balance your day." If you don't follow that, you run the risk of being "always on", which can be mentally draining.

Douglas advises setting up mental cues and rituals to get you in (and then out) of work mode, which can range from making a cup of tea and reading the news before you take to your desk to spending time setting up your workspace – even if heading to the office means pulling up a chair at the dining table. She recommends you “turn off your laptop and close the door to the office” at the end of the day to help you adjust your mindset once again.

Working remotely also doesn’t have to mean leaving office culture completely behind. Douglas advises checking in with colleagues every morning to stay focused and limit feelings of solitude. “Without regular social contact, we don’t feel the lightening of our burdens,” says Wyne, adding that it’s through connecting with others that we can gain self-worth and perspective, and quieten self-criticism. Without bouncing off our colleagues for ideas, feedback and comfort, we run the risk of losing career confidence.

If you don’t have colleagues to check in with, set up a network of freelancers or fellow industry insiders, and take virtual coffee breaks or hold group discussions to keep each other inspired and stimulated.

Being a social caterpillar

Naomi and her husband Doug Hassebroek enjoy a happy hour and cheers friends and family from their home using Zoom to connect digitally at the end of their first Friday working from home due to concerns over the rapid spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
Have regular chats via apps with friends and family to keep your socialising needs satiated. Reuters 

You may be cocooning, but not all of your social butterfly instincts need to be put to rest. “The risk when self-isolating is that we forget who we are in our daily lives – we don’t operate according to our normal compass or values,” warns Wyne.

To fend off loneliness – which lowers life expectancy and has been linked to depression in studies such as the 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development – it’s crucial to fill out your social calendars like you usually would. Well, sort of. Switch meetings in cafes with a virtual balcony coffee with friends, set up games through apps, start a digital book club and schedule in long chats with family. Setting up regular social interactions to a time and date will hold you accountable, and stop you falling into the bingeing-in-bed trap.

For others, it may be the complete opposite problem that becomes detrimental to their happiness: sharing their small isolation space with the same person or people. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when they transition to remote is not discussing boundaries,” says Douglas.

While talking primarily about working from home, such advice can be applied across the board. Be politely upfront and don’t let tensions build; implement schedules for shared and solo activities; be open about feeling fragile and needing space. Communication, after all, is key – as studies have shown that close, healthy relationships are essential in protecting our mental health, and those who have good communication skills have stronger relationships.

Finally, while all passions can’t easily be transported indoors (horse riding and golfing will have to wait), use this time to take up a new hobby to keep you mentally stimulated ­– learn a language, set yourself a personal writing project, or practise your arts and crafts or carpentry skills.

Factoring in fitness

One of the major risks when we lead a life indoors is the impact it can have on our fitness routines. “Everyone knows that working out releases endorphins, which not only make you feel happier, but also alleviate stress and mimic the effect of painkillers,” says Sonja Moses, a spiritual sports coach, creator of HiitBox and Barry’s Bootcamp Middle East’s master trainer. She reminds us that as well as gyms closing, it’s also the lack of movement throughout the day that can negatively impact our mental health if we don’t take action.

“For many people, the gym is the only outlet of escape they have from their everyday life,” she adds, meaning it’s more important than ever not to neglect this routine. If you work out regularly, Moses advises sticking within the structure that works for you – be that waking up early for a spot of HIIT or doing some cardio after dinner.

If you’re not a regular gym-goer, she stresses that now is an ideal opportunity to implement exercise into your every day. “Even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes a day, it can make a difference.” Moses also recommends getting fresh air when you can, even if it’s just to the balcony or backyard for a short, brisk walk.

And if motivation is the problem when you are cut off from the outside world, she recommends checking in with your “fitness family”, and working out at the same time to the same video. As a 2017 study by the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine reported, working out in a group is better for your mental health. If that proves difficult, Moses says: “Music is the answer.”

One of the major things we need to look out for when it comes to our health and fitness during isolation is “over self-soothing” as times get hard.

“When feeling vulnerable and alone, we typically turn to passive coping, such as eating and drinking more, binge-watching, oversleeping and not distinguishing between night and day. We become largely physically inactive, but mentally overactive with negative thoughts and predictions,” says Wyne.

Instead, be mindful about the days, weeks and maybe even months ahead – for instance, by sticking to a routine, setting goals, celebrating small wins, practising gratitude and transforming the narrative as an opportunity for growth – and your mental well-being may serve to gain, rather than lose, from this global moment of pause and reflection.