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How I'm Protecting Myself From Depression During Self-Isolation

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Halley Cornell - Blogs
By Halley CornellMental health advocate and writerMarch 17, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

Last Friday I had a phone session with my therapist, and at the end they asked me how I was doing with all this coronavirus stuff. “You have to promise me you won’t just entertain all your most feral and anti-social instincts,” they said. “Eat some protein.” I laughed, but it was a proper warning: I was preparing for an indefinite period working from home, for a stretch of limited contact with the outside world. And when my routine gets blown up and I can’t see my people, my depression comes knocking.

That’s in normal circumstances. In these completely strange and overwhelming ones, it feels like this sudden isolation is inviting depression right into the house. Though I am happily single and an introvert, I enjoy my people a lot (probably more than they know). I count on my weekly writing groups at the coffee shop, my band practices, and my everyday work pals. Being with people I care about and am interested in helps keep me out of my head and in the world.

Isolation, on the other hand, is something I do to myself when I’m at my very worst. I associate isolating with sickness and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and when I’m alone for long periods I can slip into dysfunctionality and disengagement. This is the first time I’ve had isolation done to me, and frankly, I’m kind of scared.

So here I am doing my usual thing, and making a list while I’m still on the sunny side of life. These are some ideas I came up with to do, and not do, to help combat my depression in this time of our Great Staying Home:

Do: Video hangouts
Over the weekend I had a virtual happy hour on Zoom with my girlfriends from all over the country. We all gave our field notes from our various cities. It was comforting to look into my friends’ faces, and into their homes, and talk about how we were each dealing with the same weirdnesses. We’ve already got another one planned.

Do: Find a way to be a helper
Someone once called me “aggressively helpful” and it made me laugh, because: accurate. One of the ways I deal with stress and avoid feelings of futility is to point overwhelmed energy outward. Then it gets channeled into doing things that might be useful for others. And right now, lots of people need helpers. You could find a way to check in on your senior neighbors, you could drop off food at food banks or doorsteps, you could walk dogs for at-risk people, you could teach your friend’s restless kids how to make a kite. You could give someone some toilet paper!

Do: Get out of bed and get cleaned up and dressed in the morning
I know. Just when you thought it was a 24/7 pajama party. But after a while, schlumping around in your sleep clothes can just make you feel dull. And that’s exactly the kind of feeling we don’t want to accumulate right now, because it’s a precursor to depression. Besides, you wanna look good for video charades later.

Do: Get creative
There are tons of things you can do through a shared video or voice app with friends. Last night I wrote a song with someone on the other side of town. It was so fun! You could hold a cooking class, or play guitar together, or read to each other, or learn origami together, or do the crossword. Keeping your brain engaged in something creative and doing it with friends is the ultimate depression fighter.

Do: Commit to good input (and input some of it with friends)
The last thing you want to do when you’re by yourself and it’s an uncertain time is spend hours and hours glued to the screen scanning for the latest details. You can’t get all the information. No one has all the information. You’re not going to be the one person missing something crucial if you turn off for a while. Try a documentary about people making things instead. Or how about watching those classic films you’ve been meaning to get around to? Or set up a joint watching party and beat the pants off your friend at Jeopardy.

Do: Go outside
Today I walked down to the post office at lunchtime and I waved to two people on the street. I feel a little silly admitting this, but it felt warm and good, just to acknowledge people and have them acknowledge me back. We are all feeling the strain right now, but we’re all also feeling how interconnected we are, and how we must help each other through this. Strangers, as well as friends.

Don’t: Stop talking to people altogether
This is depression’s touchdown dance. Don’t do it. Make yourself reach out each day to replace those casual contacts you won’t be getting as much through coworkers or people at the store. Start a thread on Facebook and ask how your friends are doing. Post a picture of your pets who are not at all concerned on Instagram. Call your mom.

Don’t: Increase your drinking or smoking or decrease your exercise or sleep
I know it’s tempting for those of us with depressive brains to start thinking of this as an inescapable situation, and to give ourselves over to our bad coping mechanisms. But you know that when you’ve done that before, it’s just made you feel worse. So try as much as you can to treat this like regular time, even though it’s not, and keep your drinking light, your exercise regular, and your sleep times consistent like you would in any other week.

Don’t: Try to solve the future
We are someplace we have never been. We don’t know how to fix it, and we don’t know when it ends. These are some of the hardest things to accept about any situation. But accepting them means you can just work on getting through today. Trying to look too far ahead is likely to end in catastrophizing, and what we definitely don’t need right now is more catastrophe. What we need is a lot more kindness and patience toward ourselves and others, and to have the reserves to do that each day, we need to intentionally choose to stay present and work with what it’s given us. It’s what we’ve got.

If we stay focused on what we’ve got, maybe we can keep this isolation from becoming a loneliness trap, and instead, see it as a chance to keep each other above water.

Stay safe, be well. 

If you're already struggling with depression now, I'm sorry you're dealing with that during all of this. I know how hard it must be. Stay safe, stay in touch with people however you can. You can check here or here for ideas that might help. And remember more help is a phone call away at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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About the Author
Halley Cornell

Halley Cornell is a content strategist at WebMD who has worked in multiple healthcare settings advocating for holistic mental and physical health. She writes from a perspective of her personal experiences working to outsmart and overcome treatment-resistant depression and clinical anxiety.

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