In this guide, I hope to share in-depth advice for those who are feeling anxious, sad or frustrated while self-isolating. This guide is based on hours of research alongside my personal negative (and gradually more positive) mental health experiences.
Just trying to help in a small way while I’m on the opposite side of the world from my friends. 🙂
This guide is carefully adapted from my Ultimate Mental Health Guide for Travellers, which remains on my website. Apologies for any similarities.
If you’re self-isolating, can you still implement 5 lifestyle changes which doctors say may improve mental health?
When you’re stuck at home, you can feel like you have very little control over your day to day experiences. And, not only that, there are plenty of reasons to be anxious. If you don’t have access to the outside world, please remember that this is, for the most part, a physically safe environment. So, now let’s work on keeping your mind safe too.
Hope is far from lost. As well as online therapy being more readily accessible than ever and advances in medications, doctors are beginning to work with their patients on lifestyle changes based on thorough scientific research. Lifestyle changes have had as much success in clinical trials as antidepressants or therapy. Some neuroscientists advocate lifestyle changes may be the way forward, with a combination (of lifestyle changes plus therapy or medications) usually suggested.
If you’ve not been diagnosed with a mental illness and believe this is ‘normal’ anxiety, especially considering the circumstances, hopefully, these tips are enough to boost your mood.
How do you implement a lifestyle change when you can’t leave the house?
This post lists five common lifestyle changes which many studies, with differing terminology, have shown ease the symptoms of depression for many patients. For many of you, you will recognise them from already well-known advice and ‘common sense’. But my plan is to help you actually implement them!
The steps recommended again and again for improving mental health are:
- Dietary changes
- Community / social connections
- Sleeping well
- Controlling ruminations (negative thoughts)
The truth is whether you work nine-till-five or are stuck at home unless you prioritise the changes, they won’t occur.* Dozens of books, YouTube videos and articles – as well as one-on-one treatment for patients suffering from depression and anxiety – give easy, practical, actionable advice in the hope of making it easier for everyday people. I am trying to adapt this advice specifically for those self-isolating.
*but it’s absolutely not your fault for feeling bad. It’s totally normal to have bad days or weeks. And never feel guilty because you think someone else is worse off or because you think you should be making more of your time. Give yourself a break. Your feelings are valid.
Of course, I’m no doctor or psychologist so I’m putting a great deal of trust in the research of others in this post. With that in mind…
Before we begin:
This post explores if these lifestyle changes can be implemented while self-isolating and is not intended as a cure for depression or anxiety.
Of course, the first thing anyone should do who is experiencing depression or another mental health issue is contact your GP or another health professional. In personal experience, this is pretty scary advice to read when you’re thousands away from your native health service!
If you are able to leave the house or can call your local health provider, speak to your GP before you go for advice on how to deal with potential health issues that may arrive. Ensure you are not travelling for longer than you will have access to any of your usual medications, such as anti-depressants
If you don’t want to leave the house, I have listed contact information for a number of health organisations you may be able to speak to (including a couple of email addresses, if you prefer not to make calls).
Be sure to tell a friend or family member what you’re going through. If you are self-isolating and your household is not, see if they can help bring things into the house which will help. Or ask a friend to pick up healthy groceries. Most of all, speak to someone who can listen to you… or distract you! Got no one to talk to? @ me.
It is also possible to receive counselling over Skype, though this may be difficult to arrange through free healthcare. I highly advise arranging this if you are able to afford the counselling sessions. I would love to hear from you if you have any advice on receiving professional counselling while self-isolating.
Depression is tough and often the last thing you want to do is exercise when you’re feeling anxious. But it is worth trying to find easy ways to exercise when our mental health is hormonal changes that follow are often referred to in medical studies as ‘a natural antidepressant.’
Exercise is going to be tricky while self-isolating, especially if you’re in a small flat and can’t get your step count up.
If you’re able to go outside (or have a garden) try getting your step count up by going for a morning walk. If you have access to a car, you should be able to drive somewhere quite isolated. In England, the National Trust just announced all their beautiful grounds will be open for free, so that is something to look into. (Let me know if there’s something similar in any other countries!)
Most phones have a step counter nowadays. Why not set a target of 5000 steps to start with and then gradually increase it to 8000 or 10000 steps?
Use a free app or follow YouTube tutorial workout videos
If you’re a beginner, apps like Track Yoga are very accessible to people who are new to it. It’s easy to follow along and you can only unlock ‘harder’ classes once you’ve finished the beginner ones. A good way to progress at a nice level and start slow.
There are also so many yoga classes, meditation practises and relaxing music on YouTube – it’s a fantastic resource.
My favourite online yoga channel (suitable for beginners and experts plus Adriene is super friendly and calming) https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene
If you’re looking for a more hefty core workout, you could also try https://www.fitnessblender.com/
Some local Yoga studios and Gyms are now offering FREE online classes if you don’t want to disrupt your regular practice.
I have set my target to three 10-20 minute sessions a week to begin with… Professionals recommend bitesize targets! Missing targets makes it easy to feel bad about ourselves and then we don’t continue. So start small! We can then increase them if we are consistently hitting our target.
I also recommend this great blog with 25 fun Workout At Home ideas.
Resistance bands and weights
(Or use those cans of beans you’ve been stockpiling!)
Take the stairs instead of a lift
Maybe it’s just the stairwell of your flat or you’re able to get out and find a mighty hill.
Walking at an incline works out different muscles to flat roads so it’s worth making this effort.
Go hiking or biking
Again, if this is possible. Find a quiet route and get out into nature!
If you live near the ocean, maybe you can even swim or kayak. It’s a good time to try a new physical activity so, idk, maybe now is a good time to learn how to tango?!
Many gyms and gym classes are open
Practising social distancing, you may still be able to attend gym classes. Be hygienic and check what the rules for your area 🙂
Do some gardening… if you have a garden 🙂
A HEALTHY DIET
Look for healthy restaurants on your takeout app
Too under the mood weather to cook? You can still eat healthily without leaving the house.
HappyCow is an app that shows restaurants and cafes near your location that have vegan or vegetarian options. Often these lists include restaurants with healthier options in general so might be worth a try.
Eat mindfully / don’t overeat
It’s so tempting to overeat when snacks are readily available and you’re working from home!
Sticking to meal times or when your hungry is a safe bet.
If given a huge plate of food, eat consciously. Pause between taking each bite and take note of when you start to feel full. Enjoy!
Cook healthily – maybe buy a fruit and veg box?
The easiest way to eat healthily is to cook healthy. Maybe even try supporting a local fruit and veg box? Oddbox is a cheap option – they pack up all the ‘ugly’ fruit and veg that didn’t make it to the supermarket! (Due to demands, some veg boxes are temporarily not taking new orders, so you may have to shop around a bit first.)
Try some new recipes
If you miss travelling, learning how to cook your favourite cuisines will let you travel without leaving the house. You could also try a recipe box delivery such as HelloFresh.
I’m rubbish at hydration so always need to make sure I carry a reusable water bottle (I have a filter one from watertogo). If you’re bad at remembering to drink water, try to start with drinking a glass at mealtimes.
Don’t make big changes to your diet without consulting your doctor first.
Weirdly enough, daily cod liver oil supplements packed with omega-3s has been as successful at decreasing depression in clinical trials as many anti-depressants. Oily fish such as mackerel, herring and salmon are also good places to start.
The good news is if that sounds gross to you (see also: fish in general if you’re veggie like me) there are plenty of ways to pack your meals with omega-3s. Flax seeds and chia seeds are great to add to things like breakfast, walnuts are a great snack and soybeans are also a great source – this includes soya products such as tofu. And try eating meals with plenty of green, leafy vegetables.
In some countries, you can also buy loaves of bread and milks fortified with omega-3s.
I try to pick up snacks such as seeds, nuts, roasted chickpeas and dried fruit when I spot them in a convenience store. This way I am less tempted by unhealthy snacks.
Also, those seeds and nuts are often great for getting omega-3s as a bonus.
COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION
Traditionally, weekly group activities – such as meetups, dance lessons and communal vegetable plots – are a key factor in reducing loneliness, no matter our age. In this case, I am considering other ways we can increase our connections with others without leaving the house.
Talk to friends and family
Although Skype is simply not the same as face to face time, scheduling regular ‘Skype dates’ is a key way to support our oldest friendships. Other people I know prefer long emails and voice notes.
I am posting this blog on my best friend’s birthday. The borders just closed in New Zealand and she is in our home country of England. I am making her a ‘Birthday Pandemic Checklist’ of fun activities she can do at home and asked her to send me photos of her completing it! Sure, we have a literal and time difference, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun together.
Use social media responsibly
Join communities related to your interests
Instagram has proved an invaluable way for me to interact with other nomads who are stuck in a foreign country. Even when you’re not in the same place, people are usually really open to offering advice and support. You could also use forums or Facebook groups.
Mute accounts who are making you feel worried, even if they are well-intentioned. Mute specific words on Twitter and ration your time on social media each day.
Create group chats and condition your News Feeds so they are full of friendly, positive faces.
Real conversations are so important. Use real video and phone calls, not just instragram.
Have conversations where you TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS and make it a ‘C Who Cannot Be Named’ Freezone.
It’s okay to call your friend just to b*tch about that crappy TV you’ve been binge-watching, OK?
Follow people who make you laugh! Personally, I am loving Beth Sandland on instagram now, a 100% relatable Brit showing the realities of working from home and sharing stories of people dancing in their kitchen to her fun Spotify playlist. She also has a bookclub. Let me know who else is making you feel better about life right now!
More tips of long-distance communications from Suzy: https://suzystories.com/long-distance-communication/
Have a Good Sleep Kit
Depending on what impacts your sleep the most, you may need a sleep mask – I recommend a comfortable material such as silk and one that fits fully over your eyes, not letting light in at the bottom. Other people swear by earplugs.
I also need good earphones to listen to relaxing music. You might prefer downloading the Kindle app or audible.
Try to maintain a consistent sleep routine
Having an ‘ideal’ bedtime in mind is worthwhile.
And consider how long it takes you to wind down. Personally, I need at least an hour or two of calm activity before bed (whether that’s watching TV instead of going down a social media rabbit hole haha). I try to do some gentle stretches, drink camomile tea and turn off social media during my downtime.
A good sleep routine includes waking up at a similar time every day! If you’re not a morning person, stock up on good breakfast food and great coffee so you’ve got more of an incentive to start your wakeup routine. I also try to get exposure to sunlight as early in the day as possible… usually just through opening the blinds. 🙂
Download relaxing music or sleep stories
You can easily download Spotify sleep playlists or relaxing podcasts and audiobooks offline.
Apps like Calm also have specialised sleep playlists and sleep stories which I have found to be surprisingly effective – at calming anxiety, if not always lulling my insomniac brain to sleep.
Don’t drink too much alcohol or drink caffeine after 3pm
The notion that alcohol helps you sleep is a huge myth! Your quality of sleep is worse overall after drinking, even if it does help you drop off quicker. A glass of wine or beer isn’t too bad but drinking enough to get ‘drunk’ is definitely not going to help.
My personal rule with coffee is to not drink any long after lunchtime so the caffeine has plentiful time to leave my system before bed.
DEALING WITH NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Ruminating (focusing on negative thoughts) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) are go-to terms for anyone many people who’ve tried to manage their anxiety. I just want you to know negative thoughts are totally okay and not your fault. When you’re up to it, I hope this section will help you think more positively.
Unfortunately, accessing therapy when you can’t leave the house is going to be difficult (as mentioned earlier). This means practising mental self-care is essential, even if we’re dubious about how effective it will be.
There are so many triggers right now – it can be hard to stop yourself from spiralling or even having a panic attack. But there IS hope for dealing with anxiety even in this situation.
‘Ration’ the time you spend on the news.
Turn off news alerts. You don’t need the live feed on constant refresh.
Check daily so you are able to confirm government recommended health warning, and follow the best World Health Organisation advice as it happens. Don’t go overboard.
If it’s possible to stand barefoot on the grass or even better lie on the grass, that’s really beneficial. Or if you can’t get outside, try just lying down on your yoga mat, with one hand on your heart and one on your belly. Just breathing can help ground your energy (similar to meditation but simpler and less formal).
And you can also try to acknowledge where your pain is… Where are you feeling it in your body? (is it tightness in your chest? Pain in a certain area? Queasy stomach?). This can help bring your awareness to your body and get out of your head.
Use an app such as ‘Calm’ or ‘Headspace’ – meditation and much more
You may find it useful to use an app such as Headspace or Calm. Their guided meditations are a great way for beginners to practise mindfulness. Even if you’re sure meditation is not for you, even using them to take the focus of negative thoughts could be effective. I’ve personally found Calm brilliant for reducing anxiety.
Headspace is a less cluttered app focussing purely on meditation. Calm is great for people wanting more variety and includes many different meditations, ‘masterclasses’ (which are kinda like mindful podcasts), sleep music and breathing exercises.
Take ‘note’ of when you’re ruminating
If your thoughts are spiralling or you’re repeating the same negative thoughts… Think ‘I am thinking XYZ right now and my thoughts are spiralling’. Even just taking note of repetitive thoughts is a good place to begin, as it snaps your focus back to reality. Half of the battle with ruminating is acknowledging you’re doing it!
Some people may find it useful to literally take note. Some use a journal, others use the note app on their phone when they’re ruminating (and then delete it).
And take note of if you worry about the same things again and again and…
If you realise you tend to ruminate on the same things, see if you can change that. Maybe you’re anxious you’ve not got something done? Set aside MORE time than you need to accomplish it. I.e. 2 days downtime for a 1-day task. This way you’re more likely to succeed even if you procrastinate or didn’t sleep well the night before.
Distract yourself – MOVIES, BOOKS, etc
Chat to someone (in person or message a friend), try to take part in an activity such as following an online recipe, exercising, or having a Netflix Watch Party – meaning you can watch a movie with your mate, even if they’re in another city! https://www.netflixparty.com/
Grab your kindle or download the kindle app if you can’t get the real papery kind 🙂 Here are some great book recommendations if you don’t know where to start: https://booklistqueen.com/book-club-books-2020/
Don’t judge yourself too harshly 🙂
When practising meditation or mindfulness, don’t think you’re bad at it when you slip back into the same negative thoughts again and again. Even just noticing the negative thoughts is progress! The stakes are super low with meditation haha. You literally cannot do it wrong 🙂
Make a to-do list at the beginning of the day, message your friends to see how they’re doing or download Duolingo to finally learn that language.
Are you working from home? My blogging friends gave me some tips:
- Up productivity if you have a Mac with a Self Control app and blacklist websites that hinder your productivity – Emily
- Get up, shower, and get dressed! This makes a huge difference. Then sit at a table or desk to work, not the sofa, not your bed. – Claudia
Tell a friend when you’re feeling depressed or anxious.
Depression and anxiety are hard enough to deal with as it is, let alone when you’re self-isolating. During my last bout of depression, I told close friends the truth about the fact I was feeling depressed ‘as it was happening’ for the first time. Of course, it didn’t cure the issue, but having people keeping tabs on you and checking in on your mental health is invaluable.
Gratitude is shown again and again to be a REAL mood improver, even for people who are ‘naturally’ negative when tested in long-term studies. The key when practising gratitude is to schedule it into your daily routine (say by mentally listing 10 gratitudes at breakfast or before bed) and to BE SPECIFIC. It’s no use telling yourself you’re grateful for food and flights every day as you’ll stop having an emotional response.
Gratitude should be something specific. And consider how you felt.
Here are four examples of gratitudes I’ve had during depressed periods:
- I couldn’t go out today but booked a private room. The duvet was so warm and I felt protected and comforted.
- At the moment I felt my worst, a friend happened to send me a link to an article I could read and it took my mind off things for a while
- I feel nourished after finding delicious and healthy vegetarian food today
- My flight was delayed and it gave me extra time to calmly listen to an interesting podcast. I didn’t panic and feel like I’m making progress with my flight phobia.
Let me know one of your self-isolating gratitudes below.
Above are the FIVE lifestyle changes that came up consistently in pretty much all of the mental health research I found. The below are additional changes other studies or health organisations have said improve mental health and may still be practised by a traveller even with depression or anxiety.
I’ve included them briefly in this post in case they are of interest to some of you.
LEARNING A NEW SKILL…
Not only is this a way to distract yourself from rumination and anxiety, but it’s always a potential way to incorporate physical activity or feel like you have a purpose. It’s great to focus on something where you can see a positive progression!
Free Academic Short Courses:
Learning New Skills:
Others may prefer to use YouTube videos to help them learn guitar, how to build a website or even knitting. Cooking classes are another popular way to learn something new. Skillshare is also a great resource.
ACTS OF KINDNESS…
The UK’s NHS lists this as a way to improve mental health issues… and I think they mean going a step further than typical British politeness.
Maybe ask a friend to drop notes for you to elderly neighbours with your number, offering to give them a call if they feel lonely? If you’re able to, you could pick up their groceries. (Just make sure you socially distance, leave items on the doorstep and practise good hygiene.
In some studies, there’s a sixth necessary factor in improving mental wellbeing: DIRECT SUNLIGHT.
It’s the sunlight that has positive effects, rather than warmth, so don’t worry if you can’t get out. Sunlight can help your sleep too, which is a bonus. This just means opening your blinds fully during the day and trying to get out for a walk every day if you can.
It’s also worth repeating the now well-known tip that popping your phone on blue light mode before bed – or limited screen time during this period entirely – avoids tricking your brain into thinking it’s morning when you should be winding down to bed.
And let’s be realistic about what we can do. For example, set realistic exercise goals; if you don’t exercise every day you said you would, that is totally okay. Just do a quick 10-minute yoga stretch before you go to bed instead (even if it’s in front of Netflix!). Or add a few more healthy items to your next grocery shop.
However, finding a sense of community – long shown to vastly improve mental health – is a trickier case to crack. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Once again, please take this blog post with a pinch of salt.
There are no rules or guarantees when it comes to your mental health… Particularly when you’re listening to a blogger and not a medical professional! 🙂 Where possible, they should always be your first point of reference.
List of mental health contacts:
Lifeline for USA and Canada – providing counselling and support
Mental health hotlines for Australian citizens:
Complete list of mental health phone numbers provided by the NHS (UK).
This is a list of all mental centres available to reach by email (UK).
International Crisis Hotlines for advice and support (worldwide).
Contact the country’s emergency number in case of an emergency.
Is there any further mental health advice you think would be useful to those who are self-isolating? Is there a way you can rent out a dog or a goldfish? I feel like renting out a dog or a goldfish would help everyone a LOT.