The need for self-awareness in times of social distancing and isolation

“The last of the human freedom – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” – Viktor Frankl

Written by Dr Lahiru Russell

Current circumstances are certainly challenging. On one hand, isolation and social distancing are in place to keep the community safe, so staying at home or trying to work from home has become the norm for many people.

On the other hand, whether we live alone or in a busy household, adjusting to this new imposed routine can cause a range of difficult emotions and maybe a feeling of being “stuck inside”.

Adding a dose of uncertainty around the timeframe of these measures and increasingly tightening safety recommendations can further challenge our ability to think rationally.

The bright and not so bright sides

As a community, people have come together in the most creative ways to support each other.

From online international communities burgeoning almost overnight, to global clapping movements to praise healthcare workers and police forces, to free meals delivered to vulnerable people – heart-warming acts of compassion and generosity know no bounds.

However, at the individual level, we saw how anxiety and fear-driven behaviours are neither useful nor helpful.

Subsequent to the announcement of safety measures, panic buying has led to devastating consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in our society.

Acts of discrimination against Asian communities in the wake of the outbreak are another compelling example of the prejudicial and damaging effects of fear-driven behaviours.

More generally, a recent review reported how periods of isolation can have negative psychological effects, which can be detected months or years later.

So, while physical measures are vital to reduce the spread of COVID 19, strategies to manage the psychological impact of these measures are just as important.

In this state of confusion, there are practical tools that can be used to manage our fear and anxiety.

When caught up in stressful thoughts, the first step is to become aware of this predicament.

Cultivating self-awareness with mindfulness

Self-awareness is the ability to intuitively notice our emotions and thoughts. It is key to understanding ourselves better, the impact of our behaviours on others, and accepting who we are.

This awareness is central to noticing unhelpful thoughts and emotions and maintaining a sane and clear mind while adopting the right behaviours to keep ourselves and our community safe.

Mindfulness techniques provide practical tools to strengthen self-awareness and manage our emotions.

Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose to fully embrace the present moment. It requires being curious without judgment and being patient and accepting about what is really happening.

Some people are naturally inclined to be mindful. But most individuals are constantly distracted by thoughts about the past or the future, hardly noticing the reality of the present moment.

As a consequence, if thoughts about the future involve catastrophic scenarios, fear will be the driver of our actions.

Through mindfulness practices, we learn to recognise the thoughts and emotions that arise in the moment, without being driven by them.

A regular mindfulness practice will increase a sense of awareness to thoughts, emotions, and elements influencing them.

This takes time, but a simple mindful exercise a few times a day can train us to redirect our attention from stressful thoughts to what is really happening in the moment. This is the mindful S.T.O.P.:

S: Stop. Whatever you’re doing, just pause for a moment.

T: Take a breath. Re-connect with your breathing. The breath is an anchor to the present moment.

O: Observe. Notice what is happening inside and outside of you. What are you thinking about? How are you feeling?

P: Proceed. Continue doing what you were doing in this newfound awareness.

Regular practice for greater awareness

A brief practice like the mindful S.T.O.P. can train the brain to become more aware with our current state of mind and emotional landscape.

While we will still feel the emotional impact of isolation and distancing, we will be better equipped to choose how to respond to the situation instead of automatically reacting to it.

And over time, instead of feeling “stuck inside”, we might start to appreciate staying home.

Inspired and want to try some mindfulness practices during your isolation period? The ABC, in conjunction with Smiling Mind, has handpicked some useful meditations and mindfulness exercises to help us stay calm in the middle of all the uncertainty.