Picture the scene. Well, maybe you’ve been there? You’re going about normal daily life when your phone buzzes. There’s a text. Or an email. Or just an alert - but however it comes the info is the same - you or someone in your house has had The Message. You have been in contact with someone who has tested positive. You now need to isolate …
Or maybe it is down to where you live? Whatever your personal situation, if your postcode matches one of the areas now under more strict measures, your situation is changed, however you feel about it.
Or perhaps you are unwell yourself. Awaiting test results or knowing you have tested positive….
All of these situations push us into an almost sci-fi moment when it becomes illegal to do something we’d never normally think about: leave the house. Our most basic right to control our own lives, to have freedom, to make decisions for ourselves are challenged and taken away in a moment. We become dependent on others to drop things off for us and help us out. And we become aware of our own vulnerability in a way we perhaps never have before.
The challenge with isolation comes from just how unusual and new this situation is. We have literally no similar contexts to compare it to. When your mind tries to understand and process something it searches for similar experiences, pieces of knowledge or information, anything that will help with understanding. As it tries to make sense of what is happening, particularly if it challenges basic foundations we build life on - like the fact we like to believe we are in control of our own lives, or we are basically safe, it triggers emotions to keep our attention focused on the challenge in hand and enable the analytical parts of the brain to keep whirring away on this problem.
In most cases, the only comparable context we know to isolation is the one I have heard most people talk about. “It feels like I am in prison,” said one friend in isolation this week. Another said “I feel like I am being punished but I didn’t do anything wrong.” Prison is a common link our minds make - but it’s not a positive one. The other obvious link is to the lack of control - not being able to get out. “I feel trapped,” another person told me this week “and I can feel the panic growing. I didn’t want to leave the house until I knew I couldn’t…” Feeling shut-in, claustrophobic - this is another common comparison our minds might make.
In this situation, we need to work to teach our minds a more accurate context in which to understand our own experience of isolation. We need to speak and practice and release stories which are more positive, less anxiety triggering - and ultimately more accurate. Stories of retreating to keep ourselves and others safe, of protection, of a conscious decision to pull together and try to limit the spread of a nasty virus. In retreating into isolation we actually operate as part of a wider society working together to protect the vulnerable: it is a courageous act, an altruistic act, a care-full act. Although the information may come from someone else, the decision to take this positive, strong action comes from us, and we can choose to make it a good thing to do, even when it is far from easy.
And what about us? Isolation isn’t easy, but if we can help our minds comprehend it better, we can remove some of the difficult emotions from it. And there ARE things we can do to manage isolation better. In a recent prayer thought, Kate shared some tips from a New Testament isolation pro: Paul looking at how we manage isolation in our minds - but here are some practical tips if you are caught in an isolation moment yourself:
(1) Give yourself a break
It's ok to find this hard. Remember, your mind literally needs some space to process this and figure out what it means. So you may well find you react emotionally at first. That is ok. It will not last forever, this will get easier - it is your brain’s way of signalling that this is significant, unusual and unexpected.
Particularly if you are on local lockdown, you may find your mind reaching back to memories of the last lockdown - which may be traumatic. Make a point of reminding yourself this is NOT the same. Some things may look similar, but the situation is different. You can handle this differently, others will handle it differently. Think of it like a choose your own adventure book from the 90s (!) - even if the story feels familiar you can make different decisions so the outcome need not be the same.
One thing you need to do - and might need to do better or differently in this season from the last lockdown - is reach out and connect with others. This is all about WHO, HOW and WHEN. So think about WHO - are there key people you miss dreadfully? Key people you need to be in touch with? Key people who bring something good to you - laughs, light relief, friendly banter. This is the time to reach out!
Then think about HOW - there are so many ways. Zoom is one, but don’t underestimate others - could you make a small WhatsApp group for prayer and daily check in with a couple of mates? Or do a daily 5 min call with someone? Or a weekly, regular catch up? Remember it doesn’t all have to be intense - think about shared moments too, like face timing or texting when watching the same program together, or meeting on the same online service or space.
Finally WHEN - the best arrangements are predictable, stable and relatively reliable. I mean I say relatively because we all have things come up so there has to be some flexibility! But rather than just saying ‘yeah let’s chat from time to time’ and then feeling guilty if you feel low and wanting to call but not being sure if you can bother that person, or having them call again when you find it a bit much and not wanting to answer - make a plan! Catch up at a certain time, or call/connect when arranged - and stick to it.
Ok, so it’s time to talk routine. You may usually be a spontaneous kind of person, or have never really thought about plans or timetables before - but this is a good moment to start! In lockdown we heard a lot about this - but much of what was online was probably a bit too strict - planning every moment of life. Routine is actually more like stepping stones in a river - you need to know where the next one is, but you don’t need them jammed in next to one another - some freedom to jump is good! Routine helps to keep your stress level down - because its less for your mind to think about - some of life is pre-planned - you’ve got it covered already! And it helps you feel some momentum., some sense of time moving - which helps particularly if you are prone to feeling trapped or claustrophobic.
So in this moment - think about your routine through the days and weeks - what key stepping stones could you put in? A regular online class? A connection point with friends? Your weekly online church service? A prayer moment? A favourite TV program?
One of the toughest things about isolation is the lack of freedom, movement, fresh air and exercise. You are designed to move, to get out, to connect with outdoor space - and the more you can plan this into your routine the better.
So what can you do? No, seriously, first of all think about what you CAN do? What restrictions are you under? If you are in isolation you cannot leave the house beyond your own garden - but local restrictions might still enable you to go for walks or rides from your house for exercise. So work out what your limits are first.
Then think about WHAT you can do and WHEN you can do it. And remember to vary it: online exercise is great, so find out about local classes - some things in particular lend themselves REALLY well to online teaching (online pilates is great) and help you keep moving and stay flexible and well. If you are able to get out, do - even if it is just to sit on your step with a cuppa. If you have a garden get into it - dig out a skipping rope (atually skipping is harder than it looks!), jog on the spot or just drag a chair into the sin if you’re lucky enough to get some and feel the warmth on your face. And of course - if exercise wider is allowed - go for it! It doesn’t need to be a hike or marathon - just a stroll round the block can transform your day.
(5) Think productively
The final top tip is to try to think about any ways in which this period could in fact be positive. I know, it’s not what you would have chosen, and it is tough - but are there some good things that you could draw out of it?
Again - don’t be too ambitious - you may have read online about people who wrote sonnets, or composed entire operas or solved complex maths problems or learned to code, or to speak another language or whatever … your achievements might feel a lot more modest! But what could you do? Make it fun and/or relaxing if you can - got a puzzle you always wanted to finish? Or a long suppressed secret desire to learn to knit? Need an excuse to try bread baking? Or is there just that drawer you have always needed to sort out …
It might not be a practical task of course. Perhaps this is about your mindset or making some God space that is unusual. You have stepped out of your normal life for a period of time - and in the Bible desert moments, quiet moments, isolation moments were often spaces God spoke into. Could there be an unusual opportunity for clarity here, for you to pray, or read, or seek God? Remember - you CAN be in charge of what this time is about - so make the decision to step out of being out of control and take control of what you can, making some good decisions and making some space for some good stuff.
If you're in isolation and need some reading material or inspiration here’s a few things we LOVE:
Treasure in dark places, Liz Carter.
Written in lockdown, this is a new collection of poems, prayers and retelling of ancient stories seeking to express and process the complex feelings triggered by a difficult time. Beautifully written and great to read if you are struggling with your own emotions and feelings.
The prayer course / How to pray: Pete Greig.
Decided to use some of this time in prayer. Not sure how? This is a great book and online course taking you through an experience to explore prayer in a much fuller way.
This is an online/virtual prayer space where you can both post your own prayers - but also pray for other people’s. Got some time on your hands? Why not use it praying good things for someone else? What better way to spend your time than to pray hope over someone?