Self-isolated at home? Here's what to do to keep busy, stay connected, and not go stir-crazy.

By Christina Oehler
March 17, 2020
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In the past week, the US has slowly started to shut down socially. On March 15, the CDC began recommending that people practice social distancing—in other words, avoiding close contact with others. And yesterday, President Trump advised people to limit their socializing to small groups of no more than 10 people to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

As a result, your usual social gathering spots—offices, bars, restaurants, and movie theaters—are off-limits, assuming they're still open for business in your area. Most of us will be practically confined to our homes, without the face-to-face social contact that helps keep us feeling connected and positive.

Problem is, it's a human need to stay active mentally and physically and maintain some social connections—these help us feel happy, busy, and healthy. With this in mind, Health asked psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, for ideas on the best ways to spend your time while you self-isolate.

Shut off the news

If you've been glued to your screens for the latest COVID-19 updates, this is for you. Taking a break from the stream of negative reports can help reduce stress and anxiety and give your brain room to for positive thoughts and ideas.

"It's so toxic," says Lombardo. "I call it winter storm syndrome, where we're all watching the news and talking about the updates and rumors and breaking news over the storm, but repeatedly hearing about the mass panic and just stressing over it isn't helpful."

Turning off alerts and notifications on your phone is also smart, says Dr. Saltz. She suggests limiting your exposure to the news to two to three times a day for a few minutes at a time, so you're aware of developments nationally and in your area but don't get caught up in predictions and what-ifs. "Definitely turn the TV off; it's so repetitive and anxiety-inducing, and especially terrible if you have kids at home," she explains.

And resist the urge to check the latest headlines before bed, recommends Dr. Saltz. You'll likely get a better night's sleep—which everyone needs right now.

Move around as much as possible

Self-isolating doesn't mean sitting around on the couch all day. Thanks to YouTube, Pinterest, and other sites, you can get a thorough workout from home. (Health also has plenty of free, no-equipment fitness videos, too.) Just 30 minutes of any kind of heart-pumping workout can significantly reduce stress, says Dr. Saltz, and it'll also make you feel busy and accomplished.

If a fitness routine isn't your style, come up with your own creative way to work up a sweat. "It can be anything from running around with kids to dancing around the house to music," she says.

Dr. Saltz adds that if you are able to get outside, being in nature can further reduce your stress level; it can also spark your creative side. (You should still follow the social distancing guideline of staying six feet apart from others, per the CDC.)

Knock out some to-dos on your list

Sitting in front of the TV for days and binging on HBO will probably make you stir-crazy. A better way to stay active and focused? Get on that to-do list you've been putting off forever.

"A lot of us have probably said for years, 'I'll do that when I have time.' Well, now you have time," says Lombardo. "When we procrastinate on projects, that causes stress. So as you start to tackle those projects, it can help reduce stress as well as help you feel like you're doing something. Even though we may not be doing anything productive about coronavirus in particular, tackling even little projects can feel good."

Learn a new skill

Speaking of to-do lists, you probably have a bucket list of things you've wanted to do or learn, but you never had the time. Not only will picking up a new skill help pass time and give your brain a workout, but doing new things is its own stress buster.

"There is plenty of research that shows when we learn something new, and do something that allows us to grow, it can be very powerful," says Lombardo. "Whether you want to learn a language, learn how to cook, or even learn how to put on fake eyelashes, now is the time to do it."

Many online classes and seminars are free and can be done from the comfort of your couch. Take a peek at some of these virtual museum tours or enroll in an online Ivy League class. There are so many options, the hardest part will be deciding which skills to take on.

Reach out to people outside your social circle

The impact of social distancing can be even harder on those who are struggling with mental health issues and loneliness. Taking the time to reach out to others, especially those who are more vulnerable because of age or health, might help alleviate a little bit of the discomfort and stress of self-isolation—yours and theirs. It's also an engaging way to get in some socializing.

"A lot of people are really stressing out, and we know from research that when we help others, we help ourselves," says Lombardo. "This doesn't have to be anything major, it could be something as simple as 'Hey, this is a stressful time, I'm thinking of you.'"

Dr. Saltz suggests communicating face-to-face: "There are a million different ways to communicate with your loved ones, but creating that face-to-face time over video chat with friends and family is so important," she says. "Set up a FaceTime date to eat dinner together virtually. Let your kids have virtual play dates over Skype. I think people should be thinking about everything they can do to stay connected remotely."

It's also a good time to connect with old friends or family members you care for but aren't in regular contact with. Take the time to reach out to an ex or old friend, and let them know you're thinking of them.

Create a workspace if you're working from home

Don't get us wrong— spending a day in your pjs is the dream. But spending weeks in your pjs? You really might go stir-crazy. Lombardo says that to make things feel as normal as possible and keep your sense of purpose is to get up and get dressed like you usually would for work.

"You don't have to get into your finest outfits, but shower, change your clothes, and act as if you're going to interact with other people," says Lombardo. "This helps give a sense of normalcy in a time where things are definitely not normal."

Speaking of pjs, it's easy to make "work from home" synonymous with "work from bed." But even if your home is the size of a shoebox, it'll be good for your mental health to carve out some kind of dedicated office. "Even just dedicating a part of your room as your temporary work space that's separate from your sleep space will make a huge difference," says Lombardo.

Indulge in your favorite self-care routines

Both Dr. Saltz and Lombardo agree that if there's one self-care practice to take on right now, it's meditation.

"Everyone says 'I would meditate if I had the time,' and now they really do," says Lombardo. "While I know how hard it can be to stop your mind from wandering, any attempt at meditation is better than no meditation."

Dr. Saltz recommends taking breaks throughout the day for five-minute mindfulness sessions, and looking into apps and websites that offer free guided meditations. She recommends using the time you'd normally commute to and from work to practice.

Meditating isn't the only way to practice self-care while social distancing. Journaling, creating artwork, trying out new makeup techniques, doing self-massages, or just setting candles beside your tub and enjoying an in-home spa will all help you destress and feel like your best self.

Follow positivity on social media

Social media is a hotbed for envy.  But since you don't want to delete Instagram entirely, make a point to unfollow any accounts you normally follow that make you feel stressed, anxious, resentful, or fill you with self-doubt. Right now, you just don't need it.

"We always hear about how spending time on social media can make you depressed, so stay away from negative people on there," says Lombardo. "However, use social media for its positivity. Look for people who are posting positive things, talking about how we can deal with this stress, and follow those people."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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