The Mental Consequences of Isolation: Tips for Adjusting Self-Talk in the Age of Corona

Posted on Mar 27, 2020

Ya’ll, everything is weird.

Finishing out the second week of my Covid-19 quarantine, its occurred to me that there has never been a more important time to evaluate the way we are speaking to ourselves. For many of us, this is the most we’ve ever been alone…even for my introverted friends. In this indefinite period of isolation, its very easy to drown in your own thoughts, which got me thinking about the mental consequences of being alone. Especially those of us who suffer from anxiety, are battling depression, or have dealt with an eating disorder in our lives, the next few weeks (months?!) have a certain level of impending doom. I mean…what in the literal f*ck is happening??

Overnight, our social interactions were reduced to Instagram and FaceTime. We all respond to crisis in different ways, and its honestly been fascinating to watch the dichotomy — the internet even gave us a front row seat! There’s the friend thats somehow still in denial because they’re “healthy,” refusing to truly embrace #socialdistancing…and the ones who took it too* seriously and bolted into the woods. There’s panic stricken hoarders that made the news buying up all the toilet paper…and the ones who’ve decided this is a great opportunity to redecorate their apartment. Bonus: suddenly Instagram is also full of a million people working out. I’ll say it again…what in the literal F*CK is happening??

With so much more social sharing, we’ve started to see the cracks and imperfections that weren’t always prevalent in a well-curated social media profile. My question is, is this the life altering event that allows more of us to open up and share our struggles? To share how we are really feeling, recognizing that the rest of the world is experiencing their version of the same phenomenon?

In an effort to start that revolution, let’s talk about the reality of mental health in isolation.

Let me start by saying that mental health is a very wide spectrum and, even if its never been a particular struggle for you, extenuating circumstances like these are bringing up challenges for everyone.

If you have a history of mental illness, you (hopefully) know your triggers. If this is a new scenario for you, thats ok too! This new world we are living in comes with a myriad of emotions, struggles, fears, and unforseen challenges…and everything is amplified. The thing is, our *healthy* coping mechanisms have been compromised…or in many cases removed entirely. Schedules, routines, and control factors that allowed us to process our emotions and keep many of us in a space of “normalcy” has gone out the door. As a recovering control freak, I can personally confirm that its incredibly uncomfortable to be surrounded by so much ambiguity.

So what happens when you can’t do the things you normally do? When the routines that kept you “sane,” or the plan you had in place to combat your anxiety/depression etc, is no longer available? Typically, the human brain reverts back to old behaviors. You know, the destructive ones most of us have spent our lives avoiding falling back into. And, since everything feels more extreme when you’re alone, the risk of spiraling out is so much more intense.

Maybe its my recovered eating disorder brain being hyper-sensitive, but the number one amplified fear I see rapidly taking over the internet: body dysmorphia and fat-phobia. Despite a recent shift in the last few years away from diet culture/body-shaming and into a space of self-love/body-acceptance, isolation and uncertainty is quickly abolishing all the progress we’ve made. Comments on the “corona-15” and hashtags like “#DGFF (don’t get fucking fat)” spotlight our overwhelming struggle to adjust in this climate. Truthfully, we weren’t prepared for such an extreme shift…and for those of us that were already clinging to a delicate balance, this is more than enough to send us over the edge.

So…now what? We adjust our expectations and evaluate our resources. Our new reality is permanently rooted in uncertainty and I think its important to make a survival plan, starting with the way we are speaking to ourselves and how we are reacting to those thoughts. I refuse to let this take me down, and given my history, I thought I’d share my plan:

We are constantly in conversations with ourselves. In isolation, when there is no one else to offer a counter point, the way we are speaking to ourselves becomes even more consequential.

I’d guess that most of us know what generally sets us off, at least our most basic struggles and triggers, but lets dive deep here. Get to the root of the thoughts, beyond the basics, and really identify the un-met needs that we’re compensating for. For example: a lot of people are (understandably) struggling with loneliness. The cause here is obviously social distancing but the un-met need here is often more than physical interaction. Beyond a basic need for connection, for many others its also an un-met need for external validation.

If you ask yourself why you need that validation, or (more importantly) what happens without it, then you start arrive at the stories you’re actually telling yourself.

In this example, I am lonely because I am stuck here by myself. I am alone because no one wants to be quarantined with me. No one wants to be here with me because I am unworthy and unlovable. Therefore, the story we are telling ourselves isn’t just that we are lonely, its actually that we aren’t worthy of love.

Bringing it back to prevalence of body dysmorphia, another story we often tell ourselves is that our physical appearance is directly related to our worth. In this example, being quarantined will make me gain weight/lose muscle. If my body isn’t perfect, everyone will judge me and no one will want to be with me. If no one wants to be with me, thats proof that I am unworthy and unlovable.

Sometimes you have to sit with it for awhile, and ask the right questions, to get there. Each of us is different! But getting to know the story beneath our self-talk is a crucial step in re-aligning and healing – it brings us to the root, the un-met need we are instinctively trying to resolve.

Keeping with the above example, if the un-met need is connection and validation, there are a million ways this can show up in “behaviors.” You might find yourself drowning in social media comparisons to confirm and validate the story that everyone else is more lovable than you. Or maybe you retreat into yourself to “prove” that no one is reaching out. Body dysmorphia can lead to over/under-exercising or food behaviors such as restricting or binging. Or there is always the ever popular route of seeking attention from company otherwise unhealthy for your mental state…like your shitty ex. (Just me??)

“Behaviors” range from person to person, but whats important to note is they are actions intended to satisfy an un-met need, to try and regain some sort of control to reconcile a challenging emotion, but will never fully resolve the underlying story we are telling ourselves. Its human nature to seek relief from discomfort, most of us don’t even realize we are doing it! This brings us back to the way we are speaking to ourselves: if the action/behavior is paired with negative self-talk or some form of punishment, theres your warning sign. It might feel like a temporary fix in the moment, but typically these things amplify the issue and create more problems long-term. If you let yourself be vulnerable, I promise you’ll know exactly what behaviors you’re doing here.

First we identify what we need to feel ok. Then we identify what we’re doing that is hindering our ability to get there. This clarity now allows us to make a survival plan.

The most important action we can focus on in these moments is awareness. Awareness of the above (what am I doing and why am I doing it), but also awareness of the extreme gamut of emotions that comes with the above. In making a plan of alternate behaviors/coping mechanisms, we create a go-to list of ways to keep ourselves on a healthy mindful track.

Its time to brainstorm all the things that make you feel good in relation to your personal needs, and assign them to replace your unhealthy behaviors. Start high level, but then dig deeper and get creative…maybe even go crazy and make your chart artsy (we all need new projects these days). Whatever your method, make a list of all the ways, even in isolated quarantine, that you can fulfill those un-met needs. That you can feel seen, heard, and valued.. even if it requires you to step out of your comfort zone.

Be willing to ask for help, and vulnerable enough ask for what you need. You deserve this.

Back to our examples: in finding ways to remind ourselves that we are worthy of love, lets start by making a list of people you can call. Put some FaceTime dates on your calendar, plan a virtual happy hour or a Zoom workout. Trust me, whoever you reach out to will be just as grateful for a moment of connection. For my fellow introverts, perhaps it feels better to write out all the emotions you’re feeling and using this time to get to know yourself a little better. Only you know what truly makes you feel seen, connected, and loved…and you might surprise yourself – there are so many creative ways to resolve this need!

While many of us know what we are “supposed” to be doing, the challenge lies in the daily decision to stick to the plan. Responding to those stories we tell ourselves, confronting the ways our self-talk is inhibiting our mental health, and choosing ways to lift ourselves up rather than tear ourselves down is more important now than ever. Even in isolation, you are stronger than you think you are and you deserve the opportunity to prove that to yourself.

Maintaining mindfulness and trusting that we deserve to live a life full of authentic connection, this little bit of vulnerability goes a long way.

Right now its you vs. you, and we want the best version to come out the other side of this process. Depending on the intensity of your current situation, each day will inevitably come with a new set of challenges. My hope is that having a plan to fall back on when we get overwhelmed and start to spiral out will help each of us not only come out stronger, but maybe even learn something about ourselves along the way.

Shoot me an email or tag me on instagram, and let me know how you’re redirecting your self-talk stories! Choosing to be vulnerable has never been easier – the entire world is going through some variation of the same experience. Lets take on the challenge together, I promise you its worth it.