The importance of self-care and social connection: Lessons from living alone in lockdown

I generally consider myself to be a very positive person. I enjoy life, I have lots of friends, and I love my job. Although everyone has their bad days, I’ve never had so many bad days that it’s become a problem. There’s never been a point in my life where I’ve wondered, ‘Am I depressed?’ ‘Is this what depression feels like?’ That is, not until COVID.

I live in Melbourne and am currently living through my sixth lockdown. In 2020, Victoria was subject to one of the world’s longest continuous lockdowns – a total of 112 days. That’s almost four months of only being allowed to leave the house for a very minimal number of reasons. And even then I managed to keep my spirits up. I had a friend who lived within the 5km exercise zone and we’d get up and go for a walk together most days. Even though that lockdown last year went for such a long time, it felt ok because we could see the case numbers going down. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.

But now, several snap lockdowns and partway through another interminable lockdown later, my positivity is starting to wane. There are some days where I just want to stay on the couch and not do anything. Days I don’t want to talk to my friends. Days where I don’t even want to leave the house for the permitted hour of exercise.

It’s different this time. Delta has made things more serious; more frightening. It’s more contagious and despite how quickly Victoria went into very strict lockdown, the case numbers keep going up. It feels like we’re being defeated and honestly? I’ve lost some of my fight. My friends are feeling it too – we’re all just a little…. lost.

Is it depression or a natural reaction to COVID?

This is something I’ve been discussing with my friends lately. In normal circumstances, choosing to lie on the couch and hide away from the world instead of meeting a friend for a walk would be a major concern. Feeling deflated and not feeling like speaking to someone, despite having spent the day alone, could quite easily be a sign of depression.

On the flipside, we’re living through a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 4.5 million people. The protective measures the Government has had to introduce has meant we’re living a bizarre reality that we’re all processing in our own unique way. It’s difficult to know if the feelings of flatness and the lack of motivation are signs of clinical depression, or if this is just a typical reaction to extraordinary circumstances.

Either way, it’s not an enjoyable feeling. And because I’m living alone, I only have myself to be accountable to. I’ve had to find ways to motivate me to pick myself up, pull myself together and keep going. Which has been tough, but I’ve found ways that work for me.

Maintaining social connections & appreciating the small things

Normally, I love living by myself. But when you’re only allowed out once a day and can only travel 5km from your home and lose your social connections, your world shrinks significantly. These last 18 or so months have really hit home for me how important social interaction can be on a person’s mental wellbeing.

I’m very lucky to have an excellent group of friends who’ve made lockdown bearable; who make a concerted effort to check in on each other and make sure we’re all coping ok. In fact, in my close circle we’ve all made a pact that we’ll check in on each other once a week and we hold each other to that commitment. When we notice that someone seems flatter than usual, we go the extra mile to check in and see them through the rough days. Having this support network of close friends has really made all the difference.

I’m also very lucky that I don’t have to worry about my elderly parents. Even though I can’t visit them, I’m relieved that they are tucked away safely in Tasmania (for now).

Like a lot of people, my workplace is also a key source of social interaction, so not being able to go into the office to see colleagues has been incredibly difficult. There’s only ten of us in the Melbourne office and we’re all quite close, so we’ve also made a commitment to catch up on a regular basis – and not just for work reasons. Every Friday after work we have a group video chat which is purely for social purposes. Everyone makes a real effort to attend and I so look forward to seeing everyone’s faces and hearing how everyone’s weeks have been - just engaging in some light hearted banter or a fun interactive game makes a difference. It’s such a lovely way to end the week and helps you feel connected to the outside world. Appreciating these small things can have a big impact.

The effects of health on wellbeing

As well as maintaining social connections, I’ve noticed how good nutrition and plenty of exercise have played a role in my mental wellbeing. While living through a pandemic might seem like the perfect excuse to eat ice cream and chips for breakfast, I really notice the difference in my mood and energy levels if I’m not eating well, so make a conscious effort to eat as healthily as I can.

Exercise is also hugely important. When I’m in a bit of a slump, if I can push myself to go for a run or a bike ride it really does make me feel better. It’s well known that exercising releases endorphins, so making the time to get in some type of exercise every day can change your whole outlook. Sleep, of course, is also key – as is avoiding ‘doom scrolling’ the news right before bed.

But I also believe that allowing yourself the space to have bad days is also important. After all, we are living through an extraordinary set of circumstances and trying to stay positive in the face of that, 24/7, can be exhausting. I’ll let myself have days where I don’t go for a run, where I don’t pick up the phone, where I just hide away on the couch and bingeing endless TV series. As long as that one bad day doesn’t turn into several bad days; as long as I know I’ll pick myself back up at the end, then having the odd ‘off day’ can be just as rejuvenating as good company, a healthy diet and exercise.

Know when to ask for help

I’m not going to lie – lockdown #6 has been hard. I’ve had some pretty tough days; days where I’ve felt unbearably alone, isolated and totally hopeless, in a way I’ve never felt before. Where it feels like it’s taken all my strength and mental resolve to pick myself and keep pushing on; when I know I really need to reach out to a friend or get some fresh air and exercise to help pull me out of it.

I do, however, want to acknowledge that not everyone who is feeling depressed can just pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Sometimes it’s not as easy as just ‘pulling yourself out’, so for anyone feeling like a chat with friends or a walk in the sun isn’t enough to help, services like BeyondBlue and Lifeline have people you can to talk to, 24/7, so you never have to feel like you’re going through this alone.

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