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So lonely: how to prevent cabin fever in times of social isolation

March 15, 2020

For the past year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time at home. I had my reasons – burnout and depression being among the leading causes – to be cooped up inside, low on energy and socially distancing myself even without a pandemic.

This means I now have a pretty good understanding of the risks and limitations of social isolation, especially for those of us not used to it. If you know people with chronic illnesses, you may have noticed some of them wryly commenting that it’s nice the rest of us are joining them. Many people with chronic or long-term illnesses, or immunocompromising treatments of illnesses, often have a need to spend more time at home than usual for able-bodied people, to limit contact with those who may pass on a virus, and so there is a lot we can learn from them.

What follows here are just a few things that I have learnt from my extended sick leave. Perhaps you’ll find them useful. Of course there’s the usual disclaimer that I’m not a (mental) health professional, nor am I an expert in quarantine procedures. Everyone’s situation is different at the moment, so make sure you follow instructions by your local governments and health orgs. Just consider this… self-care advice.

  • Stick to a normal bed time and wake-up time

If you don’t have anywhere to be and you don’t have kids who’ll act as a built-in alarm clock, it’ll become quite tempting to sleep in more than usual. Now, if on a normal weekday you have a 90 minute commute, a day of working from home will of course give you 90 minutes extra to sleep if you’re feeling the urge, and this may actually help you boost your immune system. Just be careful, because messing with your sleep schedule too much can lead to more tiredness in the end, and if you’re working from home, the siren call of your bed for an afternoon nap may become too much to resist.

  • Plan your days

Without leaving for work or school, it can be quite difficult to achieve the sense that your day has truly started. Before you know it, the morning has bled into the afternoon, which has encroached on the early evening, and it will be difficult to figure out where your day went. Now, many of us could do with a couple days like that – boredom and doing nothing can be quite good for your mental health – but it’s all about balance. Too many of these days and a sense of lethargy may take over. So before going to bed, make a (flexible) plan for the following day. When I was in early recovery, I’d start my day with a yoga class at a local studio. It got me out of the house for at least a little while, but more importantly, it got me going. Going to a yoga studio or a gym may not be an option right now, but most of us can still go for a walk, take the kids to a park (just stay away from others), work on a hobby at home, or get started on work by checking in socially with your work-wife/husband/BFF. Just have an idea of what you’ll do to kick-start your morning, your afternoon, and which activity will signal the end of your “productive”day.

  • Make a list of non-work activities to destress

Let’s face it, most of us are now in a situation we’ve not been in before. That is stressful. We are worried about our older and more vulnerable relatives, and sometimes about ourselves, too. That is stressful. If we are working from home but are unfamiliar with how to do so? Stressful. If we’re in healthcare, police, other vital services (grocery stores, water and energy plants, garbage collection, education & childcare, and so any others)? Stressful. And with the wide availability to screens, it is easy to lose yourself in one as a way to switch your brain off. Thing is, it won’t actually help you much to relax (especially the news and social media on your phone). Bingewatching Netflix/Prime/Hulu/Videoland/HBO/whatever is tempting but – again – easily leads to lethargy. Before screens, adulthood, kids, most of us had hobbies. Now is a good time to reconnect with those earlier loves or to find a new passion. I like to write, cross-stitch, bake, cook and read. I’m not good at drawing, but I do like it. I enjoy practicing yoga. I used to listen to my favorite music for hours on end. Listing these things helps me break away from my screens to do something in which I can constructively lose myself. Writing this blog post was actually a way to break the cycle of anxiety and remind myself I can still do things I love.

If you are not quarantined yet, now is the time to make sure you have the supplies you need. Pick up some extra embroidery floss, yarn and art supplies for the kids. (Don’t hoard groceries, but I think crafting stuff is fine…)  If your local library is not closed yet, swing by an get a pile of new (light?) reads. If you have an e-reader, make sure you know how getting e-books through your library work. Don’t have a library card? Big online stores have unlimited subscriptions for e-books (in The Netherlands, you can get Kobo Plus with your Kobo e-reader on

Stop listening to people who are telling you to use this time wisely, to find a side hustle, to learn a new language or to play a musical instrument, unless you genuinely find that destressing (and as a language teacher I can tell you, learning a new language well is actually quite stressful). We are social animals, so being isolated and faced with all sorts of new worries and concerns will be hard enough – don’t pile on more hard things.

  • MOVE!

Until it is no longer safe to go outside, get outside as much as you can. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have been deprived of the sun for a long time and spring is just around the corner. We need the vitamin D (by the way, if you haven’t been taking vitamin D supplements and it is safe for you to do so, start now), not to mention the sight of green buds and pink blossoms and the slowly growing chorus of bird song after a long period of slumber and darkness. For some of us, the time will come where we are asked to stay inside (and for some, like the people of Italy, that time is already there), so we have to make the most of what we have when we have it. Just, you know, keep your distance from other people.

If/when your favorite exercise is no longer available to you, make sure you have an alternative lined up. YouTube is filled to the brim with exercise videos, from yoga to body-weight exercises to Zumba and beyond. All those canned beans you bought will make excellent weights (and perhaps you can use those hoarded bales of toilet paper for a new kind of exercise? Monetize it when this is all over? The hustle is real, y’all!).

Dancing is one of the best ways to get your endorphins going, especially if it’s to some of your favorite music. Getting silly with it will also allow you to laugh at yourself (or your kids to laugh at you). None of this is about getting (or even staying) in shape, though if you want to do that, have at it! We’ll all be doing a lot less moving around than we are used to, especially if we are working from home, and our bodies won’t like it – especially not if you quit cold turkey. So find 20 minutes in the morning and 20 in the afternoon to dance, move through some sun salutations, or do a bunch of squats with a bag of rice on your back. Whatever floats your boat. Just get moving.

  • Be of service

In a chaotic world, we like to find things that make us feel like we are in control of our environment. We’re not, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. One way to feel in control is to find ways to be of service to others. How you do this depends entirely on you and your circumstances. You can do grocery runs for neighbors, offer babysitting/childcare services, walk dogs, check in on folks. It doesn’t have to be high impact. If you have an elderly neighbor who may not get any visitors at the moment, you can give them your phone number, check in with them on the phone regularly. Childcare can be a lot higher impact, but it doesn’t have to be. Maybe a single parent colleague could use 1-2 hours of quiet working time and you can take their kid(s) off their hands for just that period. Perhaps your service can link to your method of destressing. If you like to bake, you can share the results with your community. If you do so, though, make sure you have adhered to stricter food prep standards than you would probably usually do in your own home. If there is any doubt about the cleanliness of your kitchen/your kitchenware, then do not share the fruits of your labor with the vulnerable people around you. Safety first!

Personally, if it comes to a longer shutdown of schools in The Netherlands (and let’s face it, that’s quite likely), I will offer English and history tutoring services to high school students supposed to sit their final leaving exams in May. My sister, who is a doctor, will probably also need some childcare relief in weeks to come, so that’s on my planning as well.

I may not be able to heal people or protect them from becoming sick, but I can try and make other people’s worries a little less and that, in turn, makes me feel slightly better.

Do what works for you – and be kind to yourself

I have tons more tips but this post has to end somewhere. Maybe, if there’s an interest, I’ll write a part 2.

I am fully aware that these tips will not work for everyone. I am a single, childfree, relatively healthy woman with a high education and a job that allows for working from home (with a lot of challenges, sure, but still). I am in a country with a strong social safety net. If I or my loved ones fall ill, they will continue to get paid. Currently, social isolation is encouraged, but not mandated throughout the country. So I’d be very interested in hearing where I may be overlooking things or what other people’s experiences have been like so far. Please feel free to let me know!

Wondering where I’ve been? This postand my recent illness should give you enough of an insight…



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