Self-Care during Quarantine
Like most others in the United States and the world over, the past two months have been quite different for me. I’m currently an elementary teacher in Northern Virginia. My last day working in my school was March 13th. That afternoon during a staff meeting we received the news that we would shut down for 2 weeks. About an hour passed, and the closure was extended to a month. A mere ten days later, we were closed for the year.
It was all very surreal. I couldn’t believe that they closed schools for the rest of the year. I didn’t know how to feel. This would be my last few months working for the school. I was in a bad situation. The entire year was rough. I was counting down the days until summer. My initial gut feeling was—relief—then uncertainty and guilt. Yeah, I was glad to be out of a stressful environment and mentally exhausting situation. I didn’t want things to end like this though. The pandemic is awful to say the least. I suppose everything has a silver lining though. My countdown was suddenly at zero.
The first few days of coronavacations, I indulged in total relaxation. I baked myself banana bread, played video games for no less than 5 hours each day, snuggled with my cats, and watched entirely too much Netflix. After those first days though, I needed productivity in my life. I couldn’t lounge around for weeks on end.
Step one was setting up a routine for my cats. I have two young males who are still in the introductory phase. They stay in separate rooms divided by a homemade gate. They can see each other and interact through the gate. They will play, eat, and relax with the gate between them. Remove the gate, and the fur flies! Thus, I began my cat coexistence training, or CCT as I have named it. Each day I take time to open the gate, let them interact, and give lots of positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise. I’ve stuck with it, and they’ve made progress.
Shortly thereafter, I started to feel the “quarantine fifteen” looming. The next routine I established was to do something active each day—whether it be a full workout or just taking a 15 minute walk outside. I wanted to do something to get moving.
As another effort to make good use of this time at home, and also as a way to self-validate and reflect, I began a “Coronavacations Log” in my personal journal. The heading of the page states, “What have I done with this time?” Once a week or so, I jot down things I’ve accomplished or fun things I did. Coupled with this, I made a page titled, “What would I still like to do with this time?” I check items off this list as I accomplish them. I found it helpful for my mood. Writing is one coping strategy that helps me maintain my mental health.
A global pandemic is exactly the kind of situation in which many people struggle with their mental health. Everyone is kind of trapped inside all day with their thoughts. Hm … imagine that … trapped with your thoughts … must be difficult haha. I don’t mean to sound like a bitch, but it’s just like, “Now you know what it’s like inside my mind—every damn day.” No, seriously, I’m not one to make light of mental health. I do joke about anything and everything though—consider it your only warning. This is a novel situation and it can very easily impact one’s mental health. I am struggling with it too. With my anxiety, I tend to practice self-care habits regularly. So, I amped up my self-care to face this newfound reality.
My anxiety definitely spikes some days. My thoughts and mood wander on other days. My biggest concern is—am I doing enough? It’s hard to feel productive even though I am keeping busy. I know I’m being too hard on myself. That damn, evil “should”. I should be doing more. I should be doing more things that are productive. I should work on my writing. I should reorganize my bedroom. I should work on the crocheted blanket I started 8 months ago and never finished.
It’s just very toxic.
So instead of asking, “What should I be doing?” I started to ask, “What am I doing?”
I am being very productive throughout the week: CCT, staying active, cleaning, working from home, writing.
I am relaxing and doing things I enjoy, many of which are productive by nature: embroidery, cooking, crocheting.
I need to remember that I am making good use of this time. I’m relaxing, enjoying myself, AND working on projects/being productive. I’m just obsessing about everything I could do or want to do. It’s hard when I have an excess of time because more and more things get added to my list.
One such item on my list is my job search. As previously mentioned, I won’t be returning to my school next year, or any school. I’m changing careers.
Around the end of March, I was feeling the time crunch in my job hunt. My paycheck clock would expire in 4 months, and I still didn’t have a job lined up. I hadn’t bothered with it since quarantine had begun. Why would I? There’s a global pandemic, everyone except for essential workers are transitioning to working from home, and the economy is shit. Who would be hiring? Then again, there’s no telling when this would end. Companies might continue hiring. What if it extended into fall? I found myself googling, “Should I job hunt during Covid-19 pandemic?” Accepting the new normal, I resumed my search. I would use this time wisely. This time, however, provided a very unique opportunity. When again would I have uninterrupted time at home for weeks or months? I could write. I could maybe even finish something. But I should focus on the job hunt. Money and stability take precedence over my dream job. But when else would I have this kind of time to focus on my writing? Summer vacations, which were a great bonus of teaching, would be a ghost of the past from this year forward. Both of these were important to me, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered what my therapist and I had discussed in recent sessions about black and white thinking.
What is black and white thinking you ask?
Apparently, it’s something I do constantly without fucking realizing it. It’s not the first time that it’s come up in therapy. I talked to my therapist in college about the topic as well. One thing I didn’t know previously, was that black and white thinking is very prominent in people with OCD. Why is that?
According to Singer (2018), one driving force behind OCD is needing to know for sure that you are safe—either everything is okay or everything is not okay, with no gray area.
Black and white thinking, also known as polarized thinking, is the same perception. Things are swell or things are terrible. This manner of thinking is known as a cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions are ways that we incorrectly perceive situations or ourselves. Google a list of them—I’ll bet you do at least one of them. Other common distortions include catastrophizing, personalization, and jumping to conclusions.
I recognize that I polarize my thoughts often. I’ve created a chart to help me in situations where I am only thinking in extremes.
I ask myself, “Where is it really?” and “Where is my perception of it?” I then try to answer both questions using the various scales. It helps me put things back into an accurate perspective, and usually helps me be a little nicer to myself.
In this situation, considering writing and job hunting, I was thinking I had to choose. I remembered my shades of gray though, and realized I was polarizing the situation. I could prioritize both! I balanced them in that gray zone. This marked the start of my third and final routine: job hunt and/or write.
I continued with these three routines for about two weeks. Soon though, I felt pressured. Sure, I was accomplishing a lot each day, but now I was barely doing other fun activities. I wanted time to draw, or craft, or play video games albeit not for five hours a day. I’d been doing so well in keeping these routines though. It felt wrong to give up on them. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I took a break for a couple days and let myself think. Normally, I like to make decisions quickly—I mean you do something or you don’t. *cough* BLACK AND WHITE *cough* … In this case, however, I tried something new, I sat on the decision. I gave myself time to think, and it paid off! I solved this dilemma while reflecting on a different problem.
As mentioned, I like to write as a coping strategy when I am feeling anxious or upset. One morning a few days later, I wrote in my journal because I was feeling guilty. I’d slept in until 11 AM again, when I’d wanted to be up by 8:30AM. Oops! I don’t think I’m the only one who has fallen into undesirable sleep habits with the current circumstances. Some days I sleep til 11 AM. Some nights I stay up til 1 AM. It’s all over the place. In regards to feeling guilty about sleeping late, I realized that it was an unnecessary expectation I had for myself to be awake by 8:30AM. I don’t have anywhere I need to go—what’s the harm of sleeping in? It’s not quitting or giving up. It’s changing my expectations or getting rid of them because it’s unnecessary and making me unhappy.
Change is allowed.
If something isn’t working, I am allowed to make a change and not label myself a fucking failure or quitter. I’m smart enough and in tune enough with my emotions to know when I want or need a change because something isn’t working or maybe I simply want a change! That’s allowed!
So, I decided to let go of my “be active” and “job hunt/write” daily routine. I kept the CCT. It’s not necessary for me to workout, job hunt, and write every day. I accomplished my real goal which was re-establishing those good habits. I don’t have to do it every day, but I don’t want to go a month without doing it either.
It felt really good to just listen to my wants and needs and adjust my routine accordingly.
I told my therapist about it during our most recent virtual session. She agreed that we are dynamic beings. In a time like this, especially, where the situation changes on a daily basis, it’s important to listen to our own needs on a daily basis.
To summarize what I’ve done for self-care during this time:
- Created a list of things I’ve accomplished
- Created a list of things I still want to accomplish
- Established a daily routine for a priority task
- Changed a daily routine when it wasn’t right for me anymore
I also considered setting a weekly goal based on frequency or time, such as exercise 3 times this week or write for 5 hours this week. Currently what’s working for me is continuing with the daily CCT. I also drew a simple weekday calendar on my whiteboard to write any tasks or goals for the week. I list what I need to do for work, any personal goals, and anything special happening that week.
If you like any of these ideas, feel free to try them out! I’d love to hear how it goes!
Just like this pandemic, your needs change on a daily basis. Listen to your mind and body and adjust accordingly. Do it lovingly.
Singer, J. (2018, October 8). OCD and black-and-white thinking. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/ocd-and-black-and-white-thinking/