The summer break after my first year teaching was a catastrophe. Going in, I had grand plans for sketching out my units, reading books, writing articles, exercising, completing house projects, and the like. Four weeks later, I had regular panic attacks and debilitating levels of anxiety. Speaking with friends and reading the Tweets of strangers during quarantine, it seems that many can relate to my difficulties.
With the word ‘pandemic’ atop our newsfeeds, it’s understandable that many people have high levels of anxiety right now. Whereas human contact normally brings comfort, amidst this crisis every individual is a potential invisible host. Study after study links economic recession with declining mental health. Add to that financial strain, childcare, and job loss, and we’re left with a volatile mixture ready for a mental health disaster.
There’s an element to this crisis that remains overlooked, however. Philosopher and early psychological theorist Soren Kierkegaard writes about how any individual “may try to keep himself in the dark about his state through diversions,… work, and busyness.” In other words, we all have a background level of anxiety that we cope with through our daily lives without even thinking about it. Left with nothing to do or think about, that anxiety floods our brains and leaves us overwhelmed.
Whatever the source of our anxiety during this time, there are a few steps I’ve learned to help me through every summer of self-imposed isolation. Obviously, these won’t help with financial strain or the fear of a pandemic but they’re a few things we each can do to help make a quarantine a personal opportunity.
1) Have a Daily Schedule
Our mental health depends upon routine. Winston Churchill’s routine involved working in bed until 11 am, working through the late morning with a whiskey and a soda, and a nap in the afternoon; Barack Obama’s routine consisted almost entirely of work but he ensured that he ate dinner with his family. Routine naturally establishes in our lives; during this time of quarantine that can include hours of binge-watching Netflix or set times for work, hobbies, exercise, and the like. Establishing a routine not only provides your thoughts somewhere to go other than anxious ruts but encourages productive behavior at a time that calls for apathy.
2) Set Small Goals
Before my first summer break, I planned to read the entirety of Augustine small-print, 1,300-paged tome The City of God and finish writing a small novella. Needless to say, these were unrealistic goals for 12-weeks and gave me little direction on a day-to-day basis. Instead, I’ve learned, within a routine, to set small goals for a day: write one poem or article, read 50 pages of a book, complete a portion of a house project, or something like it.
3) Get Out of the House
Our psyche craves human interaction. We need both strong relationships with those we love but studies also point to our need for weak-tie relationships, those passing interactions with store clerks and baristas. Unfortunately, quarantine makes it difficult to get our social needs filled. However, media like Facetime or Google Hangouts have made it easier than ever to connect with friends, and a walk down the street to wave at your neighbor—from a safe distance of course—can do wonders to perk up a sullen mood.
4) Wake Up and Dress Up
Doing something as simple as forcing a smile can improve one’s mood; our exterior presentation affects our interior state. For me, waking up at my normal time for work during the school and getting dressed helps to break off any lethargic habits. Surely, I leave time for a semi-conscious coffee to wake up but changing into regular clothes by 7 am keeps me from falling down a rabbit hole of social media to instead focus my energies into writing or running my online classroom.
5) Take Time to Relax
Perhaps this point was one of my greatest stressors during my first summer off. Spending all of my time at home, I didn’t feel entitled to relax. How could I watch a show when my wife was busy at the hospital? However, working from home can be just as stressful as a typical office job. To make matters worse, a home office removes the work-life balance that a commute to work can help foster—your living room is your workspace. Demarcating a time to do no more work can do wonders for mental health.
6) Keep a Journal
As Kierkegaard warns, removing ourselves from our busyness can flood our minds with emotions. Whereas we might normally cope with guilt by talking to a coworker or a stressful day by decompressing at lunch on YouTube, at home we’re left to our thoughts. Especially during this stressful time, feelings of fear, guilt, confusion, sadness, anger, and the like can quickly overwhelm us. Taking time to sit and journal allows one to process through each emotion individually in place of suffering through a collective onslaught.
7) Find a Hobby
On a normal day, my hobbies are reading and writing, but I quickly found that one’s brain can only pursue those hobbies for so long before it turns to mush. Instead, I borrowed a circular saw from a friend, bought some wood from a local hardware store, and built a bookshelf; I had a new hobby. As I’ve written about elsewhere, hobbyism is a healthy pursuit in an era when most leisure time is spent either online or watching TV.
8) Seek Professional Assistance
As a final point, routines and tips from an online writer can only do so much to help. Counseling can be one of the more helpful methods for dealing with anxiety and depression. During my first summer off, I always knew that counseling was helpful but it took a fair amount of strong-arming from loved ones before I finally went. It doesn’t make you weak but rather wise in choosing to process your difficulties in a healthy way. While many nonessential services have shut down, many counselors are maintaining a schedule through online service and video apps.
No one is sure how long this quarantine will last. Some medical experts warned of up to 18-months of social distancing while President Trump said he wants the country “opened up and raring to go by Easter.” Regardless of which prediction is correct, the reality is that this isolation will eventually end and following these steps will help us all to make it a time of productivity instead of a wasted few weeks.