What happens in the psyche of a person living alone as each day of isolation drags by?
Assuming a complete absence of human interaction and scheduled activity, people in isolation tend to experience increased anxiety and emotional instability, fluctuating sleep-wake cycles, the “slowing” of time and alarmingly, hallucinations. (You can read “How extreme isolation warps the mind” for more insight.)
Of course, each of us is differently equipped to handle confinement and in our hyper-connected world today, few of us are truly isolated. But if you are someone living alone during this pandemic, you may be experiencing cabin fever to a greater degree than others.
Add to that loss of a job, difficulty making friends, or an introverted temperament prone to anxiety and depression, and you may find yourself heavily engaged in daily inner battles that deny you a meaningful existence.
Some churches and outreach initiatives have stepped up to care for the elderly and vulnerable who live alone by delivering essentials and checking on them. But if you aren’t being reached, don’t fall into that category or aren’t the sort to vocalise your personal struggles and ask for help, what can you do to stay mentally well?
Based on my own past experiences and those of people closest to me, here are some things you can try:
1. Start a Project
In her last years as a cancer-impaired patient, my mother had lost both her speech and hearing. We communicated through furious scribbling on scraps of paper, but as I was working most days and she was too weak to stay awake evenings, we didn’t have much of a time window to “converse”.
Reluctant to disclose her medical condition and altered physical appearance, she had also willfully disconnected herself from dozens of old friends and extended family who probably would have come to visit if she had let them.
A year before her passing I got married and, upon her insistence, moved out to live in a rented apartment with my husband and other flatmates. The arrangement was far from ideal but she was of the generation and character that would rather leave the planet than do it someone else’s way. (Remind you of anyone you know?)
We were all extremely concerned about the consequences of her self-imposed isolation, but she showed resilience by starting a project of her own design at age 70.
Using my old scanner and even older ‘dinosaur laptop’, she began slowly digitising thousands of hard copy photographs taken by our family over several generations. It took almost a year but eventually she had created an entire digital library of albums which she then distributed to her siblings living in different parts of the world. Many were captioned using Microsoft Paint.
She passed away soon after, her body broken by cancer and malnourishment but her mind still sharp as a tack. Though there exists only one set of hardcopy albums, family members scattered across the globe can now pull up memories on their phones and computers whenever they want.
We don’t know how long we have on earth, especially in light of what’s happening now. If you find yourself alone at home with a lot of time on your hands and nothing meaningful to do, consider starting a project that has the potential to bless others.
Here are some ideas that you can always learn more about online. Many of these projects take up a lot of time, which is ideal if you are stuck at home a lot or currently unemployed. In addition, education portals like Coursera and Udemy are now offering heavily discounted or even free courses on some subjects.
For those who prefer hands-on activities:
- Learn to bake sourdough bread and give away your bakes
- Grow your own herbs and vegetables from supermarket produce (and save money!)
- Join a freecycle group and give away all the things you never use to the less fortunate
- Learn to use your phone camera properly so you can take beautiful pictures and tell video stories
- Dry and press flowers to make cards and wall art
- Paint your walls a different colour
- Learn to sew something simple (like a reusable face mask!)
- Try inventing a board game if you’ve always loved them. There now exist many solo board games too! Check out Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective)
For those who enjoy learning or writing:
- Learn psychology, social psychology, or counselling (all will help with your own mental health)
- Start a blog on a topic close to your heart
- Learn to make a website to market yourself as a freelancer
- Listen to audiobooks and podcasts that inspire (Like TED Talks)
- Join a penpal site and learn about life in another state or country
- Connect with foreign/overseas students who want to practice their English with someone
- Learn about investing so that you can grow your savings when economies start recovering from the pandemic (Start in your 20’s if you can, don’t wait!)
For those who cannot rely heavily on the internet or don’t want to spend any money on a project:
- Sort out and scan years of hardcopy photos, cards and letters
- Begin an indoor workout or dance routine to get fit. Use music as a motivator.
- Write music or song lyrics based on your life experiences.
- Memorise scripture or quotes from people you admire so that they come to mind easier in circumstances when you need them
- Try sketching everyday objects or scenes outside your window with a pencil – that’s how a friend of mine started an entirely new career!
For those struggling with anxiety:
(i.e. Many anxious thoughts plague you all day and you can’t seem to focus on anything positive.)
- Learn about and try practicing mindfulness. Build a space in your home or yard (if you have one) where you can do it.
- Download the “Moodnotes” app and the “Monument Valley” puzzle game to your mobile device, as these were developed specifically to assist persons suffering from stress and anxiety. (Read more about that here)
- Take walks in parks or uncrowded green areas whenever you can, as research shows a strong correlation between being in nature and mental well being. If that’s not possible because you live in a dense urban area (like me!)…
- Project nature images and soundscapes in your home constantly through YouTube channels like this one.
For those struggling with depression:
(i.e. You feel extremely sad, unwilling to talk to anybody, and unmotivated to do anything at all except lie in bed or watch TV. )
- Read or listen to a different version of Psalm 143 each day. Use it as your personal prayer. (Or select a different psalm that speaks to your situation from this list.)
- Create or follow a music playlist with songs that speak life, hope, and healing into you. When we’re depressed we tend to gravitate towards sad, angry music that aligns with our emotion, but you can determine to break that cycle by influencing your own mood through music. Try something like-
Upbeat Christian Music Playlist
- Set yourself small, achievable goals in a “To Do” list that help you take little steps towards healing. (e.g. Today, I will find one recipe online and cook something healthy and tasty for myself instead of eating an instant meal. Tomorrow, I will try and connect with one person on my contact list. The day after, I will send my CV to one potential employer.)
The Lord is near to the brokenheartedPsalm 34:18
and saves the crushed in spirit.
2. Vocalise your thoughts and prayers
Extensive surgery to remove cancerous cells in her throat had left my mother with limited use of her voicebox. Sessions with a speech therapist helped her to regain some vocalisation, but her voice was raspy for many years afterwards.
Because it was such a struggle to communicate the full range of her emotion verbally, she began to rely more and more on hand gestures, facial expressions and written notes. Her decision to progressively reduce contact with the outside world over the next 12 years also didn’t help as she had less opportunity to exercise her vocal chords. Eventually, the radiotherapy-crippled organ failed altogether and we had to resort to only writing and gesturing.
While her story is a complicated one, I learned that vocal communication, if we are so blessed to have it, is a tool that needs to be cherished, exercised and cared for. For a person who lives alone in a time of unemployment and/or lack of social interaction, using your voice regularly can both keep you sane and help you feel less alone.
It doesn’t feel natural for some of us, I know. Many of us prefer praying silently rather than out loud – but that’s usually because we feel self conscious in the presence of others. In the quiet of our own homes during this pandemic, let’s try something different. Try vocalising prayers or routine thoughts while you cook, clean or work on something.
I used to do this ALL THE TIME as a foreign student living alone in a small apartment, and also as a 20-something traveling and staying alone. Some of it was prayer – thanking and talking to my Heavenly Father about the events of the day or interceding for others. Some of it could be classified as “thinking out loud” as I processed different ideas without the help of a smartphone (or pen and paper!)
And at other times I would respond verbally to characters on TV shows, solve riddles along with gameshow contestants, read magazine articles aloud and sing along with songs I recognised on the radio.
Was I mentally unwell? Of course not!
On the contrary, I’m happy to report that such verbal expression during the day kept me from feeling isolated and listless. It also kept my vocal chords warmed up so that when I did have to interact with service staff or someone on the phone, I didn’t sound like I had just woken up!
If you’ve never tried it before or you feel silly doing it, just give it a go for several days and see if it does anything to change the atmosphere in your home. It’s okay to feel silly once in a while, and these are extraordinary times.
3. Try hard to maintain communication with at least one person
When we’re “in a funk”, we tend to shrink away from connecting with people. We escape into our social media or news feeds, games, sleep and comfort TV. We even turn our back on God and quit praying because we haven’t seen answers to prayers we’ve uttered a hundred times over in faith and persistence, and so we don’t feel cared for. In those times, we don’t feel particularly motivated to read His word either.
My husband and I have both (separately) gone through seasons of feeling isolated and unwanted, failing at our jobs, feeling that the Lord “wasn’t near”, being hurt by others and not wanting to open our hearts up again to reconnect with people, even at church. At times we found ourselves alone at home, fighting that old, familiar descent into despondency.
How did we get through it?
Most times, we kept the line open with at least one person. Before we met each other, it was usually a parent or a friend who had known us for years.
After we met each other, the 3-year separate-continent relationship brought other challenges and reasons for bad moods. Two people from different cultures and polar opposite upbringings were trying to learn about and care for one another virtually, with only a few weeks of in-person face time per year.
In this messy tangle of disagreement, misunderstanding, distrust, heartache, uncertainty, hope and love, we kept the door open to communication. At times it was little more than a crack, but it was enough.
The few occasions when we shut the door completely (both before and after we met one another) brought us to record lows in life that we hope never to revisit.
The lesson learned? Keep communication lines open with at least one person – and by that I mean communication that includes disclosure. Not the superficial “How are you?”… “I’m fine” routine that so many of us are guilty of.
This needs to be communication that honestly reveals how you are coping with your difficult circumstances and emotional turmoil. If you are wrestling with suicidal thoughts and other dark temptations, this conversation needs to be real enough to keep you from actually harming yourself, especially when you live alone.
This “lifeline” is what God uses to keep you afloat, to bless you even though you can’t see it just then, and to lead you through the dark valleys of life to sweeter meadows.
And there WILL be sweeter meadows.
People who have struggled with anxiety and depression will tell you that with Jesus, seasons of healing and freedom do come – and usually they come through another human being.
So try hard to connect with at least one person. I know you may not feel like doing it, but in time, you may find the blessings far outweighing the discomfort of being vulnerable in front of another person.
If there is no friend or family member in your life you can think of right now to whom you would want to disclose your struggles, consider calling or emailing someone in a helping organisation in your country.
For example, in Singapore:
- Faith-based psychiatric support and counselling services
- Christian Counselling Singapore
- Depression in Singapore
(Support resources listed towards the end of their post)
- Aware.ie in Ireland
- Saddleback Church’s network of counsellors in the USA
- Online Consults and Online Christian Counselling in Australia
…and so on. These are just a few examples in case you’ve never had a look at what’s out there.
In addition, some churches are responding to the crisis by producing online worship services and sermons meant to encourage folks who are in lockdown or otherwise affected by the pandemic. I highly recommend Saddleback Church’s current series, A Faith that Works when Life Doesn’t for those of you looking for practical tips on how to handle what’s happening now.
Lessons of Loneliness: What God Can Teach Us Through COVID-19
A short, encouraging piece that helps us spot silver linings when situations beyond our control start to overwhelm us.
When loneliness meets self isolation
Advice and ideas on dealing with prolonged confinement, by Jana Magruder writing for Christianity Today.
Coronavirus: How to cope with living alone in self-isolation
A BBC feature that gives voice to the struggles of women who live alone, by Kelly-Leigh Cooper.