Self isolation for beginners

choir practicing on Zoom through quarantine

This months article is brought to you by Dr Anna Sedda, in a special online-only edition of Konect produced during the ongoing COVID-19 situation. 

If only we had a manual to survive a pandemic! None of us has the manual though. Nonetheless, psychological research on extreme environments, such as scientists working at the Pole or astronauts, provide insight on things to keep in mind as we go through these challenging times. I have extracted my 5 priorities to ensure I will get out of this pandemic as sane as I was before.
Firstly, every morning I repeat my mantra: this is not a sprint, this is a marathon. I felt the urge to use all my energy as isolation begun. Then I stopped: if you do sports, you know a marathon requires to save some energy. We should recognise that we cannot plan much of the future, hence save up some energy for unforeseen events and focus a bit more on the present. 

We can only do this if we accept that some days will be better than others. While being grateful and being happy during a pandemic is important, we also need to be aware that sometimes we will feel down and sad. And this is perfectly fine. This is how our brain works: fear protects us, sadness is useful to decode events. At the same time, being worried is ok: this is a pandemic, not a piece of cake to go through. Hence, the second tip is that we should embrace at times our worries as they allow us to recognise that things have changed from normal routine.

Tip number 3: be compassionate. To others, but also to yourself. Some days you will lose your patience. Some others you might not be as productive as you wished. Some things are also outside your control. Do not expect that you will show your best self every day. Sometimes, just congratulate yourself because you did simple things such as getting dressed or cooking a meal. These that usually are small tasks are big achievements now. It means you have tried.  And when you cannot? Well, that's fine to. Tomorrow it will be different, today is just rest.

Rest is the fourth tip: have some mental space to digest what is happening. When you eat a pizza, you can't (normally) eat another one immediately after. It takes time to process food. Similarly, it takes time to process change. Even more time if things are scary and very novel. So, give yourself some time, 5 minutes or 2 hours depending on you and what you must do, and just reflect on things. What has changed for you personally? What do you need to prioritise? Who can offer you the much-needed emotional support? 

The final tip, I am afraid, goes back to not having a manual. We live an era when we read many news online and there is plenty of advice. The risk is to compare ourselves to others and feel we cannot achieve the same. Well, the secret is that there is really no perfect way of handling all that is happening. We are similar but different. The real trick is to find your own way of dealing with changes and challenges. Mix and match. Find the advice that is helpful, try it out and do not fear changing your mind. This week, I am dropping yoga: chocolate works better for me!

Dr Anna Sedda is an Associate Professor in Neuropsychology at Heriot-Watt University, and like most of of her colleagues is researching and teaching from home!