Coping with isolation.

  • 14 April 2020
  • 10 mins
  • With Britain in lockdown, millions face isolation not just from friends and family but from their colleagues.
  • There is a sharp divide between those who can work from home and who live with others, and those for whom neither of these is true.
  • Here are some tips and techniques to help you cope.

When Theresa May’s government appointed Britain’s first “minister for loneliness” in 2018, there was some questioning as to whether or not this was really an affair of state. Rather like attempts by the Office for National Statistics to measure “wellbeing”, was this not a case of public-sector over-reach? (1) Now, with Britain in lockdown and more than 17 million people at least working from, or confined to, home – the move looks farsighted.

For many our relationships at work identify a large part of who we are and comprise a significant part of our socialisation. Leaving that behind when forced into isolation can be very difficult.

This is especially so given widespread expectations of a permanent tilt towards home working [2] even after the coronavirus has been defeated. Employers seem likely to question the cost of traditional office premises. And some employees may prove reluctant to return to old habits, when they can save on train fares, formal ‘office’ clothing and dry-cleaning bills.

But that is for a future in which choice has been restored, both in terms of working patterns and freedom to associate with others. Right now, neither of these applies, and no-one knows when the current restrictions will be lifted.

“A distressing and challenging time”

What we do know, however, is that the lockdown has created different cohorts, members of which experience the compulsory isolation in different ways. There are those who live in households of more than one person (such as parents with children) and those who live on their own.

And there are those who can work from home with reasonable ease, thus continuing to earn money, and those who cannot. These can obviously be mixed and matched to give, for example, those living alone but unable to work from home.

Alone but not lonely

Here we need to make distinction between being alone and feeling lonely. Being alone is the state of being on your own and there are many who are happy in their own company: merrily pootling about the house and garden, watching TV, doing jigsaws or enjoying their hobbies.

Loneliness, meanwhile is a feeling of abandonment and describes the sadness of being remote from others. You can feel lonely in a crowded room.

According to Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, sustained loneliness activates an avoidance mechanism in the brain, making you are more likely distrust others, making you withdraw even further. Loneliness doesn’t only play tricks on the mind, it can also take a serious toll on our physical health: Even in a pandemic-free world, chronic loneliness increases the risk of an early death by 26%. [3]

Isolation can trigger other mental states like boredom, fear, frustration, and anger, all of which can be precursors to depression.

From the heights of academe…

According to the World Economic Forum, there could be as many as three billion people living under coronavirus lockdown. For most people, this is an unusual, unprecedented and unsettling set of circumstances. [4]

University College London launched a study into the “psychological and social effects” of the coronavirus [5]. Lead author Dr Daisy Fancourt said: “This is a very distressing and challenging time, with people having to cope with worries about family, friends, work, and finances as well as increasing numbers of people having to enter full isolation.”

She added: “This research will help us to understand what psychological and social challenges people are facing and what factors can protect against negative effects on mental health.”

Work, and the ability to generate an income, remain central to anxieties about isolation, despite the various measures put in place by Ministers to support employees and the self-employed.

…to the deep blue sea

The World Economic Forum turned to two groups of people expert in coping with isolation: astronauts and submariners. Their advice includes: have a sense of purpose, keep busy, shower and change clothes every day, make plans for the future and do something different, such as “start a new project, learn to play guitar, study another language, read a book, write, create”.

Britain’s best-known living artist David Hockney offered advice on a similar theme: “anyone who fancies taking up art as a lockdown hobby: take out the pencils or brushes”. [6]

Positive mental attitude

But for millions of people, the anxiety of isolation will arise from separation from the world of work, not only in terms of lost earnings but regarding loss of social contact and the sense of self that, rightly or wrongly, is sited in the workplace. Details of schemes to support people financially through the lockdown can be found on the Treasury website [7].

Stay grounded

Enforced isolation has a similar pathology to other stress-related syndromes like depression: the lack of control over our lives. The neurology behind our need for control is complicated, but taking some of that back is deceptively simple. The first thing we need to do is think about the here and now and not let our mind wander to the future. Ask yourself: what can I control? Simple things like the food you eat and the clothing you wear (for Webex or otherwise) can create a sense of stability. [3] Deep breathing – three seconds in, three seconds to hold three seconds out – can also help bring our thoughts back to the here and now. [3]

Look for the bright side

In terms of combating social isolation, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends a positive outlook: “Reframe ‘I am stuck inside’ to ‘I can finally focus on my home and myself’. As dismal as the world may feel right now, think of the mandated work-from-home policy as an opportunity to refocus your attention from the external to the internal. Doing one productive thing per day can lead to a more positive attitude.” [8]

Stay connected

We should also remember that we are not living in the 1960s or even the 1970s when the majority of our interactions were face to face and even those fortunate to have a telephone rationed its use due to high call costs.

But in an age of 4G, broadband and home Wi-Fi we have the ability and the freedom to stay in contact with friends, relatives and colleagues across the globe. There has never been a better time in history to stay in touch regardless of the lockdown.

So schedule regular calls to make sure you remain socialised. Not just with work colleagues, either. Take time to contact those who are distant from you and who may be feeling even higher levels of isolation. Let them know that there are people who will take the time to be present in their life.

Important information

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In preparing this article we may have used third party sources which we believe to be true and accurate as at the date of writing. However, we can give no assurances or warranty regarding the accuracy, currency or applicability of any of the content in relation to specific situations and particular circumstances.



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