7 Ways to Take Care of Ourselves—and One Another—Emotionally
Life in self-isolation has a different rhythm than life…any other time. No matter what your isolation looks like, it’s probably nothing like what you’re used to—and with that, we can expect new challenges, rising tensions, and difficult adjustments. Some of these can be dealt with by giving ourselves projects, staying connected with socially distanced friends and family, and creating structure around our time. But at some point in the coming weeks, we will also start to face down the fact that we don’t know when things will be back to normal. Feelings of loss, loneliness, depression, and anxiety will arrive, if they haven’t already. And cabin fever has or will set in.
In a moment in time where there’s so little we can control, therapist Shira Myrow, MFT, and mindfulness teacher Laurie Cousins say that what we can control is how we emotionally take care of ourselves and one another. They have some techniques for how to do that—even in the midst of all the scary feelings we’re up against.
Mindfulness Tips for Staying Sane, Grounded, and Compassionate during Self-Isolation
The vast majority of us are not psychologically equipped for what might be emerging several weeks into self-isolation: Cabin fever is going to set in, if it hasn’t already. Even if we’re with family we love and care for, most of us are living in close quarters, and we have to adjust to living life together in a completely different way. It will test our patience, compassion, and ability to emotionally cope. In a time when there’s very little we can control, what we can do is take responsibility for the psychological ecosystem we create at home for ourselves and one another.
So how can we create mindful intention around how we relate to ourselves and one another as we fill our days? How do we move through feelings of helplessness, anxiety, fear, and loss? Certain mindfulness tools can help ease the sense of tension. Even if you aren’t feeling too uncomfortable yet, start using these tools now. It will prepare you mentally and emotionally for the road ahead and help offset discomfort when it sets in.
1. Accept Uncertainty
Each day, it’s likely there will be an alarming headline, news that another person you know has been impacted by coronavirus, or new, unexpected challenges. Since it’s a basic function of our brain to plan and predict, this can cause anxiety. We can help ease the mind by redirecting our attention to the present moment. If you bring your awareness to your feet and stay with that sense of contact, it can allow for a feeling of groundedness that can help reduce anxiety. You might not know what the future holds—or even what is happening now—but you can find ground.
2. Do a Compassionate Check-In with Yourself
When faced with a crisis, it is easy to get irritable, depressed, self-critical, or anxious. You might even get more emotionally reactive or lash out. Doing a mindful check-in can help curb unconscious tendencies to take everything you might be feeling out on others. There’s a practice developed by Tara Brach called RAIN—which is an acronym for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture—that is helpful whenever you’re feeling challenged or stressed. Here are the basics of her RAIN practice for compassion:
Recognize. At any moment when you can intentionally recognize what’s going on inside of you—the thoughts or feelings you are having—begin to step back and observe it. Giving yourself that space can help to broaden your perspective.
Allow. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, softening into the experience without fighting or wishing it were different. Letting ourselves really experience our emotions helps us to become unstuck and more flexible.
Investigate. Begin to investigate those emotions. Become curious and nonjudgmental about what is present. Why are you feeling this way? What does it feel like? Hold your emotions with kindness rather than self-criticism.
Nurture. To nurture ourselves, we must turn toward tenderness to soothe and downregulate our nervous system’s threat response. We can tend to our needs from a caring place, see things more clearly, and feel calmer.
3. Keep a Daily Gratitude Practice
The more we dwell in fear-based thinking, the more our negativity bias obscures the good parts of our experiences. We can redirect this tendency and look for the silver linings. What we pay attention to grows.
Find things to be grateful for—even the smallest things: Listen for the birds chirping in the morning, notice new spring leaves sprouting, or slow down to enjoy a small pleasure. Despite the fact that you might not know what the future holds, you can still acknowledge the ways that you and your family are safe and secure in this present moment. Cultivating a regular, moment-to-moment gratitude practice can increase a positive perspective and resilience toward hard circumstances.
4. Create Rituals of Connection
The renowned couples therapist and researcher John Gottman uses a concept called “rituals of connection” as a cornerstone for keeping couples connected to each other, but it can be adapted to family, roommates, or whomever you’re sharing space with.
Rituals are dedicated activities in which you are present with each other. They are not merely a way to pass the time but a means to be intentional about how you move through time together. It’s playing a game together, calling a loved one every day, taking a walk together, preparing a meal. These rituals can give us a distinct sense of meaning when we are intentional about them. Not every moment of the day needs to be focused on one another, but you can notice the difference when you carve out the time. If you live alone, FaceTime, a Zoom call, or a phone call with a loved one can also be a way to create a ritual of connection with another person.
5. Set Boundaries, Set Intentions, and Take Needed Space
Each of us will process the tension and discomfort of cabin fever in different ways. It’s important to be able to create some boundaries around your time—especially if you’re working from home—and to set some internal personal space. A weekly house meeting may be in order to talk about how to negotiate shared space and foster an atmosphere of collaboration, compassion, and community.
If you are feeling riddled with anxiety, impatience, or irritability, can you self-soothe? Do a RAIN check-in. Go for a walk or listen to some music instead of lashing out at another person. Close quarters can compound tension, but if we are mindful, we can find simple practices that will offset the psychological pressure. Of course, if the pressure (depression, anxiety, loss) feels too great, it might be wise to seek out therapeutic support. The vast majority of therapists and psychiatrists are now available for appointments online or over the phone.
If you are feeling calm and grounded, ask yourself: What can you do to ease tensions around the household? Especially in terms of offering support to your children or partner. Giving our feelings of anxiety and sadness recognition can reduce feelings of alienation and isolation. But it’s key to offer emotional support and availability without an agenda other than to attune to and connect with the other person.
6. Practice Fondness and Respect for One Another
This is another essential Gottman pillar of a happy, stable marriage that can be adapted to a family as a whole. It is essentially a variation of a gratitude practice that you do in real time and with one another, and it goes like this: You express your appreciation out loud. It’s an incredibly powerful practice. Thanking one another and offering expressions of authentic respect can go a long way in creating an atmosphere of civility, respect, and kindness.
7. Stay Connected
Take time to reach out to loved ones and friends, especially those who are living alone or may be feeling especially vulnerable. This time of social and physical isolation can be an opportunity to get clear on the relationships that really matter to you. Attend to them. If you don’t have time for a phone call or Zoom, texting or social media is also another way to stay engaged. The quality of our relationships very much determines the quality of our lives, and feeling emotionally connected and supported can be powerful in this time of uncertainty.
We can also connect by being of service to others. Consider exploring ways that you can use your time, skills, or resources for the benefit of someone else. There are many ways to get involved—contacting the American Red Cross or Meals on Wheels to see how you can help, supporting your local businesses, connecting with online community support programs, or purchasing gift cards for a neighbor who lost their job. Altruism has been shown to lift one’s own mood and create greater well-being, and it can also be contagious—it spreads a sense of belonging and hope.
All of these tips and practices can help you reimagine and redefine the time you are spending together during this time—you don’t have to feel powerless or helpless against the difficult and intense emotions and issues that may arise.
Shira Myrow, MA, LMFT, is a mindfulness-based marriage and family therapist and meditation teacher.
Laurie Cousins is a mindfulness teacher and integrative somatic practitioner.