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Single people in isolation – how social distancing exacerbates anxiety

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With one in four Australians living alone, isolation proves at odds with our primal need to come together. Lack of physical contact combined with unknowingness is a recipe for anxiety. New York Times bestselling author Sarah Wilson (I Quit Sugar and First We Make the Beast Beautiful) recommends certainty anchors as a solution.

During the pandemic, Sarah blogged The Anxiety – and danger – of isolation when you live alone, describing the aftermath of lockdown as a “humanitarian time bomb”. Exacerbated by isolation and the most commonly used phrase of 2020 “social distancing”, who knew our living situation during the pandemic was conducive with catastrophe.

“With a crisis, what happens is traditionally we are programmed to come together,” says Sarah, with “biological cues” such as physical touch and eye contact needed to neutralise the nervous system.

The trouble is, with a pandemic comes the enforcement of isolation – isolate the people to isolate the virus, seems sensible right? But at what cost has this had on our solo dwellers?

“It’s like with everything with COVID, it’s the big revealer, everything’s come out from under the rug,” says Sarah. If you’re in a bad relationship or your children are having issues, or for those of us already dealing with anxiety, all of a sudden COVID’s “put it right in your face!”

Sarah shares how important living in a “connected world” is for a solo dweller, how crucial it is to connect to her community outside of her residence. With isolation wiping contact and severing connection on an emotional as well as physical level, it’s a “humanitarian time bomb,” explains Sarah, “because single people and solo dwellers have been prevented from “biologically solving the pain.”

Even as restrictions ease, the effects are still felt by those suffering with anxiety. Sarah’s sense of belonging to her community comes from restaurants, gyms and swimming pools, which are yet to return to normal operations, so the wait and uncertainty continues.

Those of us who suffer from anxiety know just how unhelpful uncertainty can be. Sarah explains how the same part of the brain that navigates decision-making controls anxiety; so when you overtax decision making, you get anxious.

Putting in place “certainty anchors” such as not overcomplicating breakfast, sticking to exercise and routinising your day is the best way to deal with uncertainty and the anxiety which proceeds.

The same rule applies for supporting an anxious friend or relative; relieving them of the burden of making decisions can be as simple as, “I’m coming over with Thai curry, we’re going to watch X, Y or Z on Netflix and I’ll leave you to go to bed by 9:30pm,” Sarah advises.

If you have an anxious employee or colleague Sarah suggests asking “what are the two or three options you’ve been exploring? From what you’ve just said, option B sounds best,” that frees them up from having to overtax the anxious part of their brain.

Can there a silver lining amidst the COVID-cloud? For Sarah who has always needed to be out in the world to feel safe has turned inwards to find additional strength, “it has actually got me pretty resilient and warrior-like,” Sarah admits.

Another silver lining to add to our isolation-handbook is our mindful conversations. Sarah notes, “instead of the hurried call while running to the mall before picking up your kid from soccer on the other side of town, people are actually finding the time to sit, not be distracted, and have a proper conversation.” A five-minute mindful conversation is far more valuable than a one-hour distracted conversation as Sarah’s uncovered “people have actually gone deeper,” thanks to confinement creating an “enforced state of mindfulness.”

From mindful conversations to moving towards being in a more permanent mindful state, Sarah talks about the importance of toning down our wants – and our busy lifestyle – when life returns to normal. Being able to scale down our needs, structure our routine and create certainty anchors is key in managing anxiety and returning to post-COVID normality intact, mentally.

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