8 ways to keep well during a lockdown
I have been home alone in my apartment in Shanghai ever since lock-down was announced in China on 27 January. At first, it was a roller coaster of emotions: fear, panic, anger, gratitude, anxiety, loneliness. But now there is peace and calm as I understand myself better and deepened my relationships with others. I have gained clarity on what matters most to me, and found the courage to live the life I had always meant to.
Friends around the world have themselves entered self-quarantine since, and many are struggling with how to manage their thoughts and emotions. What I have learned from my two months in lockdown could help.
COVID-19: Both danger and opportunity, Marcia Chen
- Give yourself permission to be a human being.
When the coronavirus first struck China and the counts of infected and dead rose alarmingly, I entered a deep panic. Afraid of drowning in my emotions, I forced myself to stay calm.
On my tenth day of quarantine on 7 February, I read about the death of whistle blower Dr Li Wenliang. This unlocked the floodgates and I cried for a long time, feeling the fears within me and the loss to the world from all the deaths. I finally allowed myself to embrace my feelings and to let them follow their natural course. The next day, I felt much lighter and, when I met with a group of friends online, I found that I had not been alone in these experiences.
You do not need to force yourself to be calm or unaffected. We are all human. When you experience sadness, frustration, anxiety, or pain, tell yourself that what you are feeling is okay. This difficult time has taught me that when I acknowledge my own fears, I give others the courage to acknowledge their own. When we all allow ourselves to be human beings, then we also open the way for authentic communication between us.
- Focus on what you can do and let go of what you cannot
At first I felt helpless. Medical workers were risking their lives fighting the coronavirus and I felt guilty for being safe and sound indoors and not contributing like they were. I blamed myself for not doing enough and drove myself into a worse state of health both mentally and physically.
I later came to the realise that by self-quarantining and keeping myself safe, I was doing my part to prevent further spread of the virus and to spare medical resources that could save other lives. Give yourself credit for self-quarantining: the curve of infection flattened in China after the country started quarantining and this is strong evidence that the measure works.
Instead of thinking about what you cannot do, shift your attention to what you can do. I can have a healthy schedule that includes enough sleep, eating healthily and exercising regularly. I can call my mother and give her virtual company and I can check in on family and friends on the phone. I can support a colleague in need. I can give extra tips to the people who deliver food to me, and can leave thank-you notes for security guards who keep my building safe.
I can also help people beyond my immediate circle, donate to charities that are fighting the coronavirus. I can join volunteer groups to offer help online to people struggling with their emotions at this time. I can write this article to share my learning and to do what I can to spread positivity.
- Practice social-media distancing to maintain mental well-being.
At first, I spent hours reading news and updates on social media. This made me very anxious and I would later blame myself for my miserable state. When I became more aware of what I was doing, I started ‘social-media distancing’, checking my phone only at certain times during the day and focusing instead on being present in the moment. The shift brought me so much peace and it did the same for friends of mine who also made this choice.
You are the information you consume. You cannot expect to consume a large portion of anxious news and still feel at peace at the end of the day. Be conscious of what you are feeding yourself mentally and emotionally.
- Be here now
The most important lesson I learned during my ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal was that the only thing that is guaranteed in life is change. Everything is ever-changing, so if we want to be at peace, we must make friends with change.
This means being willing to be in the present moment. Instead of pining for the days when we could go out freely, hug friends and travel, instead of getting lost in thoughts of the past or the future, what would it be like if we could be completely present in this moment that is happening right now, and be open to what it brings?
Mindfulness teaches that the most important time is now and the most important thing to do is to be in the present moment. We can nurture this ability by practicing meditation.
We meditate not to become good meditators, but to become more present and aware in life. In these moments of uncertainty, it is important to cultivate our awareness so that we can create a space to be aware of events without reacting. It is this space that makes us able to respond to whatever happens in our lives as our best selves. As David Foster Wallace wrote in his book This is Water, true freedom comes from knowing that you always have options. If I could give you only one piece of advice right now, it would be to start meditating. There are plenty of resources online to get you started.
- Nurture your relationship with whoever you are with now
During quarantine, you may be ‘stuck’ with only a few people, be they parents, grandparents, children, partner, housemate or, as in my case, yourself. This is a time to connect deeply and nurture your relationship with those people.
In the busy modern lives we have lived, each of us has always had our own agenda to follow, our own bucket list of things to do, our own personal ambitions to fulfill. Spending time with our families does not tend to be a priority. The coronavirus has cleared that obstacle for us. It has brought us the unexpected gift of precious time with people dear to us.
Nurture your relationship with the people you are in quarantine with. Use this time to get to know each other better. Do things together that you each enjoy. You may be surprised by the depth of connection that you find. And whether or not you are in quarantine alone, know that the most important relationship in your life is your relationship with yourself. As with others, in this relationship as well, learn new ways of being, learn to listen more deeply, and learn to connect more authentically and to show more vulnerability. It is the relationships that enrich our lives.
- Stay connected
Modern life has trained us to live in isolation, encouraged us to compete rather than collaborate, to be independent rather than interdependent, to be individualistic rather than community-minded. The coronavirus has taught us the opposite. We have learned from our time in isolation that human beings crave deep, authentic connection much more than we crave material gain. Staying connected will be indispensable for you during your time in quarantine.
You may be alone in quarantine, but it is an opportunity to stay in touch with loved ones normally beyond your daily reach. You are limited in your location, but not in your connections. While I normally spend time with the people closest at hand, the quarantine had me deepening my connections with dear friends in Singapore, Colombia, Mexico, the US, and the UK. And with these and other friends I organised online music sharing, poetry reading, a peer cooking class, a 7am meditation class, and a weekly humanity sharing talk.
- Slow down and reflect
We operate in hyper mode: get up, get dressed, commute, grab a coffee, work all day and come back home tired, having had little time to connect with ourselves and with our families. The coronavirus made us stop and see how we had lost ourselves in the busy-ness. With everything at a standstill, people stopped being cogs in a machine and returned to being human beings. No longer on autopilot, I too was able to step outside of my programming and to live more consciously, to make more deliberate choices.
Slowing down has meant making time to do things I had always wanted to do. Whereas before I had made the excuse of not having enough time, now it was very hard for me to do that. And so, I have started to write a personal blog, I have read books that I have always wanted to read, I am learning to play the ukulele, I am learning yoga chanting, and I am doing 1-2 hours of yoga and meditation every day.
I have realised that there is no knowing when our lives will come to an end. I decided I must lead the life I had always longed for instead of putting it off for another time.
- Exercise regularly
Staying physically active is important to maintaining mental and emotional health. My daily yoga routine grounds me, gives me clarity, and keeps me happy. If you do not already have an exercise or yoga practice, there are many free resources online to get you started.
Marcia Chen is a business professional based in Shanghai.
llustrations by Kaman Louie