Isolation, the experience of being physically separated from other people, can happen for a variety of reasons. Perhaps someone has been physically or mentally ill or has a long-term health complication that makes interacting with others difficult. Perhaps they’ve lost a loved one, lost a job, lost transportation, ended a relationship or lost their ability to hear and or speak.
What does it mean to be isolated?
Isolation is something we traditionally think of as an individual thing. A person begins to slip to the edges of society and then eases out of the picture, or they may even drop out suddenly. But if it’s only one person, it can be easy to miss.
Now whole countries are being told to self-isolate, to stay at home. And we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this new normal without going stir-crazy.
Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, sketches out why humans are such social creatures through his conversations with scientist and researcher Dr. John Cacioppo.
As humans evolved, we lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes of a few hundred people. The only reason those humans survived was through cooperation and looking after each other. If an individual became separated from the group, they became vulnerable to attacks from wild creatures and other tribes. And that person’s absence made the group more vulnerable too.
And so we developed the instinct for connection, for cooperation, for belonging.
We’re no longer in the savannah, but isolation can still put us at risk – both physically (from falls, illness, accidents) and emotionally. Loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression, making us feel insecure, wary and hypersensitive to threats. And if we lack social interactions for an extended period, it can lead to a decline in our cognitive functions and ability to communicate.
Today’s self-isolation is about physical distancing, not social distancing. Withdrawing from other people’s physical presence doesn’t mean cutting off contact with the outside world. We simply need to modify our interactions.
So, the question is, how do we create an un-isolated life while being physically distant from other people?
Chris Hadfield, an astronaut who lived on the international space station, knows a thing or two about spending time away from normal life. In a video message he released on his YouTube channel, he notes that there’s never been a better time to self-isolate than now.
Technological advances mean that we can connect with the wider world through our various devices and an internet connection or phone network. Medical devices like hearing implants can even help restore the hearing once lost and allowing its users to (re-)connect. We have access to the writings of men and women throughout history, to art and music, to film and television, to theatre and dance. To conversations between experts, thought-leaders and celebrities.
We’re better connected now than at any other time in history and can make the most of our resources to help us not only survive during this crisis but thrive.
Tips & techniques to reconnect
So here are the tips and techniques I’ve been collecting for how to use this time at home to reconnect with self, the local community and the natural world.
Connecting with self
- Take the time to reflect and journal about what we want our lives to look like, to clarify our values and define what’s truly meaningful to us.
- Develop a daily routine and fill it up with things that make you feel good: exercise, meditate, listen to the music you love, experiment with new recipes.
- But pace yourself. Make sure you take regular breaks throughout the day to simply sit with a cup of tea and a view out the window.
- Make time for fun activities – the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is true. Find films and tv shows, comedians and radio programmes that make you laugh.
- This is a great time to pick up a new hobby: read books or magazines, play an instrument, learn a new language, do arts and crafts, start writing a short story.
- Allow yourself to feel without judgment. It’s completely natural to experience feelings of fear, anger, sadness or confusion. Take a deep breath, sit with the emotion and then let it go.
- Be aware of your own health. Take good care of your health condition. Maybe there are things on your list you have been putting off for too long, like getting your hearing checked, which can even be done online.
- Try not to binge on news and social media, and make sure your sources are credible before sharing information. Check what you’re hearing with a website like FullFact.
Connecting with community
- Reconnect with family and friends, and get in touch with the people we’ve lost contact with over the years. Apps like FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp are brilliant for video or audio calls.
- My mother-in-law and her friend are sending each other a text message in the morning with a thumbs-up if all is well. And one woman said on Twitter that she’s calling her elderly father each day and having him tell her a story from his life. Now is the chance to go deep with each other.
- Our neighbourhood started a WhatsApp group so we can ensure everyone has enough groceries and gets the help they need. You can slip a note in the postbox with your number on it or asking people to put a sign in the window if they need help if they aren’t tech savvy.
- I’m finding it incredibly important to hear human voices right now. So audiobooks, podcasts and the radio can help break the silence.
- We can still be sociable from a distance. My gran is in a care home and the residents stand in their doorways to have a coffee and a chat across the hallway. And my neighbours are continuing happy hour at the weekends – each standing on their own patio with a glass of wine catching up on life.
- And there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for people who may be feeling lonely in isolation, who could use a friendly voice on the end of the line.
Connecting with the natural world
- Nature has a restorative effect on us both in good and challenging times. As spring takes hold and the weather improves, try to get outside daily for a dose of sunshine and fresh air.
- Go for a walk or run in the park or along neighbourhood streets. Giving people a smile and a wave as you pass can help you and them feel less alone.
- Now is the perfect time to get out in your garden to tidy things up and try your hand at growing your own food and flowers.
- Try to identify the birds you see and hear in your garden and learn a bit more about their habits, migration and role in the wider ecosystem.
- Break out those pencils and sketch the flora and fauna you see around you. Drawing can help you notice small details and appreciate the complexity of nature in a way that simply looking a scene can’t.
The importance of physical interactions
And while we’re lucky to have these internet-connected devices to help us through these times, let’s not get so used to them that we forget the value of physical interactions.
Johann Hari recounts another conversation he had in Lost Connection, this time with psychotherapist Dr. Hilarie Cash:
‘The kind of connection we need is this connection’ – she waved her hand between me and her – ‘which is face-to-face, where we are able to see, and touch, and smell, and hear each other…We’re social creatures. We’re meant to be in connection with one another in a safe, caring way, and when it’s mediated by a screen, that’s absolutely not there.’
So as we redefine what a meaningful life looks like, let’s look forward to opening our doors on the other side of this crisis and creating intentional lives that celebrate the face-to-face experiences of the communities around us.