Not coping with social isolation? You’re not alone

Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli adventurer and author who survived a harrowing three weeks alone in the Amazon rainforest, said that even before being attacked by fire ants and termites, it was loneliness that he suffered most.

Isolation is especially difficult for us Jews who live our lives based on the strong sense of community. We often ‘assemble’— be it at school, work, simchas and congregations in and out of shul. It is completely unfamiliar for many people in our community
to adapt to a life of quarantine, which is so antithetical to our customs and traditions.

Fortunately for us, there are people like Yossi, who have survived isolation to tell their tale of endurance and how they survived. Although the enormous stressors that they experienced are somewhat different to our domestic isolation and confinement, the lessons that they brought back with them may help us to deal more effectively with our current crisis. Here are some tips from people who have survived extreme isolation that you may want to integrate into your own life to help mitigate the adverse effects of quarantine:

Limit negative contact
It may seem paradoxical, but reaching out to everyone you know can have an extremely negative impact on our mental health. People who have lived in extreme isolation emphasise the importance of being gentle on yourself and to foster self-care. This means limiting the negative information that you consume. Often, others will make you feel more anxious about a situation, for example, talking about a news item they recently read, or wanting to share with you their own misery about the situation. Make an effort to stipulate when people can call and keep the conversation positive to avoid exacerbating negative thinking. Try to make the communication with others helpful for them and for you: prior to the call think about what sort of topics you want to engage in and which topics you would not like to discuss. The same goes for the news that you consume, social media sites, and messaging applications.

Adapt by making a routine
A common strategy used by people in isolation has been to establish a routine. This seems to facilitate a sense of control in their lives and helps to reduce uncertainty by building a consistent structure into each day. They plan out their activities to keep them busy; hourly if need be. Map out a daily schedule that works for you. Remember to include social activities, such as spending dedicated time with the family around the dinner table. For those who live alone, schedule an electronic meeting with friends. Divide your time at home into sections: Home time, work time, social time, and exercise time. If you are trying to work from home, but you are being distracted by the people around you, plan out activities that will keep everyone busy so that you can get some work done.

Be physically active
Short periods of physical activity can improve your state of mind. People in isolation engage in exercise, even walking from one room to another room in the house can be helpful. There is verifiable and reliable research that shows us that being sedentary, even for two weeks, leads to reduction in muscle mass and low energy levels. You don’t need expensive gym equipment to exercise. You can visit a YouTube channel and do a movement class from your lounge or bedroom. Always seek medical advice before trying a new exercise routine.

Combat boredom
People in isolation talk about the challenges of doing the same thing every day, with lack of variety, and sensory deprivation. Although we can try to keep ourselves entertained by watching TV, spending time on the Internet, and on our phones; it might be helpful to fill your time by engaging in other creative pursuits or activities that can be done away from screens (especially away from social media).

Mood, emotions, and motivation
Emotions are like warning lights — when they go off, they’re telling you that something is wrong. It is quite normal to have a variety of emotions in stressful and unusual situations.

They are the body’s way of informing you that you need to pay attention to the environment around you. That is why acknowledging emotions is so powerful. You can tell them: “I hear you! I recognise that you are trying to help me.” Journaling is an effective way of acknowledging uncomfortable feelings, including frustrations and worries. It also has an added advantage by occupying your time in a constructive way.

Dealing with anxiety and fear of the future
The uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead can lead to an ongoing cycle of worry and fear. People who are in threatening, dangerous, and scary situations describe how they weigh up their thoughts against opposite thoughts. In other words, they think about ways to contradict their own thought patterns. You may be thinking that this situation will last forever. The opposite thought is that it will not last forever. You may think that you will not have enough money to feed the family; the opposite thought to that is that the family will never go hungry. You may want to try writing down all your thoughts and feelings on the left-hand side of a page, and then write down alternative more balanced ways of thinking and feeling on the right-hand side of the page. It is important to try bring yourself back every minute to the thought of what is happening right now, instead of what might happen in the future.

These are some of the lessons to be learned from people who have suffered the extremes of isolation. We can recognise that there are negative consequences for people who are normally so social and gregarious. However, we may also consider that being apart from each other does not imply that we are segregated. What could be a better way of fostering and maintaining our Jewish community than by taking collective responsibility for the health and well-being of every member of society? Shalom aleichem.

Daniel is in private practice as an associate clinical psychologist at Cape Town Psychologists in Sea Point, where his main modality of treatment is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). He also facilitates Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) groups every Wednesday evening from 6pm to 8pm at his practice.

By Daniel Rabinowitz

Daniel Rabinowitz

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