Living alone in lockdown? Here’s how to stay healthy (and happy)

Living alone in lockdown? Here’s how to stay healthy (and happy)

Staying home under coronavirus lockdown brings challenges for all of us, but for the one in four Australians who live alone, it can be particularly isolating.

So what can you do if you’re home alone in a time of social distancing?

Psychologist Dr James Collett, from RMIT’s School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, shares his insights on strategies for staying mentally well, keeping connected and staying on top of your Netflix addiction.

What is the key thing that people living alone can do to stay psychologically healthy in a time of lockdown?

Cultivate insight. Now that sounds pretty basic, but self-monitoring and self-reflecting is tremendously important.

In psychology, we always operate on the assumption that the world’s leading expert on yourself is you. So people need to be consciously checking in with themselves about how things are going for them.

Make time to reflect: “Am I doing okay today? Am I feeling cooped up? Am I feeling like I need to get in touch with friends or just even ring someone to hear another person’s voice? What do I need to do if I’m not feeling okay?”

Woman sitting alone drinking tea Check in and make time for regular self-reflection.

Monitoring how you’re doing is critical in getting on top of issues early as they inevitably bubble up, rather than ignoring them as they grow and get worse.

Those who just keep pretending everything is okay can then crash to a halt, get depressed or demotivated, sleep too much, let their schedule slide and it all falls apart.

So it’s vital that people make an effort to consciously check in with themselves - and take action early.

There’s been backlash in recent years around social media failing to foster genuine connection, as we all just ‘like’ each other’s posts without interacting at a deeper level. How can people make good use of technology to remain socially connected in this time?

Technology is a tool, it’s up to us whether it has a positive or a negative impact on our lives.

So to use it more positively try being more active and less passive.

Instead of just liking a Facebook post from a friend, send them a message and check in, see if they’re okay. 

Older woman facetiming a friend Get active in setting up your virtual social life.

Not only will they appreciate that, putting a connection out there will be a good thing for you as well.

At a time like this, there is a real opportunity to renew friendships with people that you may have been following in your social media feeds for years but not really sustaining deeper connections with.

How important is building exercise into our new routines, for mental health?

The evidence is clear that physical activity is important for mental wellbeing. We know that getting outside, breathing fresh air, experiencing green spaces and being active are essential.

That doesn’t need to mean running for 10 kilometres, even just going for a walk is useful and the people who build that into their day will cope better with social isolation.

Young woman exercising at home Build physical movement into your day.

If you’re working from home, turn off the screen when you take a break and get outside. Even if it’s just for a walk around your garden or to the foot of the driveway and back, or soaking in the fresh air from your balcony.

Fresh air, daylight and movement might seem like such a small thing day-to-day, but over time the benefits will add up.

It’s very easy to become obsessed with monitoring the news for the latest developments, especially when you don’t have someone at home to notice you’re staying up to 3am scrolling on your phone. What kind of strategies would you suggest for keeping that under control?

The key thing is scheduling. Give yourself permission to do things, but for a set time.

So you might watch the news or look at the news online for a certain time, but then make sure you move on to something else.

The other thing to keep in mind is a lot of the time when people are watching news or scrolling online, it can actually be a coping strategy for boredom.

Man taking care of his plants at home Think about starting new hobbies or reconnecting with old ones.

I’d recommend you see this time as an opportunity to start or reconnect with hobbies and interests, and make sure there’s something at home you can do that isn’t screen time and isn’t just work.

For some people it might be picking up a book when they haven’t read one in years. For others it might be trying to draw something when they haven’t exercised an artistic interest since high school. Or getting stuck into the garden, if you have outdoor space.

What about trying to distract yourself from the news cycle with some mindless TV or video games. Is bingeing Netflix helpful?

Bingeing on screens is certainly understandable right now. But for those doing this solo, structure and discipline are important.

In terms of screen time, I’d suggest thinking carefully about limits, like restricting the number of episodes or watching streaming services only at a specific time.

Man watching TV alone Avoid bingeing on screens to fend off boredom .

Often when we do a massive TV binge it’s because we’re in that mood of not really knowing what do to with ourselves. Yes, at times it’s the quality of the show that keeps us watching, but often we’re just bored.

The trouble is we often suppress our boredom with distraction rather than recognise it as a signal that something needs to change, either in our perspective or in our activities.

There’s no one size-fits-all solution but a really easy approach is if you are feeling bored, remember that it’s a sign that you need some form of stimulus or focus.

It means it’s time to do something different, to change up what you’re doing.  

Given we're all spending more time at home and on screens, are there also risks to our sleep patterns?

Absolutely. One of the bigger risks flying under the radar for the working from home demographic, whether they live alone or not, is the potential for sleep problems.

Given the increased screen time from people being cooped up at home, combined with the lack of normal daily habits and schedules, maybe a lack of sunlight, we could see a large escalation of sleep disorders in coming months.

And that’s even without adding the issue of anxiety, which can be harder to manage in such an uncertain time and is strongly linked with sleep issues.

Apartment block at night with just one apartment lit up, someone watching TV instead of sleeping Stay mindful of your sleep patterns.

You might have trouble falling sleep or find your sleep cycle shifting out of phase, so you’re going to bed later and getting up later and later.

Over time, problems with sleep mean you’ll start to feel lethargic, have difficulty concentrating, and likely find it hard to remember things and stay organised.

That’s one of the risks that people need to manage and be on guard for. Are you adhering to a structure and discipline that enables you to get good sleep? Are you building in enough activity during the day to promote the fatigue that leads to sleep?

Many people who live alone have pets at home. How important are animal friends for helping to keep us balanced and well?

I think we’ll see that people who have pets cope better than people without pets in this situation.

One of the great relationships you can have in life is with an animal companion. Whether that’s a traditional pet, dog or cat, or maybe just feeding the wild birds that live around you, or maybe even a plant that you’re tending. 

But having that sense that there’s some other form of life at home keeping you company and that you’re looking after is a really healthy thing.

Happy man with a dog licking his face Look after your animal friends, and they'll look after you.

It’s a long road ahead and all of us will face difficulties in various ways. How could we try to reframe this time in our heads as an opportunity for growth?

There is a real social opportunity here for people to sit back and reconnect with their values, to catch their breath from life in a sense, because life does run away from us pretty rapidly.

Maybe you’re still working, but the paradigm has changed now: you’re at home, and you have more time by yourself.

This can be beneficial in giving you time to reflect on your values, on what matters to you and on what you really want to fill your life with now that so many of the distractions have evaporated.

I would expect that after this is over, we’re going to see people making changes in their lives that they perhaps wouldn't have made before, or would have taken years to come to similar conclusions, simply because they’ve had a chance to get back in touch with their values. 

If you are feeling distressed, support is available by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14 or beyondblue 1300 224 636.

Dedicated counselling and support services are available for RMIT students and staff (login required).

 

Story: Gosia Kaszubska

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