Focus on your personal growth while self-isolating to protect others during COVID-19

The act of socially isolating during the current COVID-19 pandemic will likely become a recognizable example of how Canadians by and large can be counted on to consider the public good ahead of personal interest. We are meeting the call to act responsibly to reduce risk to everyone: family, friends, loved ones, neighbours, and strangers alike. We do not know who is vulnerable and so we act as though everyone is. Indeed, it may be part of this nation’s DNA to balance individual freedom with a healthy dose of social responsibility.

Notwithstanding the very real emotional, physical, financial, and practical challenges we are facing, the ‘silver lining’ is that we can adopt a positive response to navigating this potentially transformative event.

How often have you inwardly bemoaned about the lack of time available to pursue your dream, to get caught up on one project or another? While millions on Facebook gleefully announce plans for a ‘Netflix binge’ during their compulsory isolation, why not use this time for something you have longed to do that might actually make your life better? You can define it as a period of hibernation, providing you with renewed energy and a fresh perspective on life, or a metamorphosis, an event that transforms your awareness and capability in some fundamental way.

Here, to spur your own imagination, are some positive and productive possibilities to consider:

  1. First of all, be informed, yes, but stay calm and breathe

    At this moment we are being flooded by media that, for good reason, is alerting us to the gravity of the situation and the importance of following recommended social distancing and isolating. This is essential to help us ‘flatten the curve’ and ensure the frequency of cases remains safely within the capacity of our health system to manage.

    However, it can be detrimental if we lose our perspective. By keeping our ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic nervous system) response constantly activated, we will over time depress our immune response — the last thing we need at the moment.

    So let’s start by taking three slow, deep breaths. Feel the seat supporting your body, the floor supporting your chair, the foundation supporting the floor, the earth supporting the foundation. Feel the whole earth beneath you. It isn’t going anywhere.

    ‘Talk’ to your anxious self the way you would to a five-year-old child. We refer to this as self-calming talk. Put things in perspective with a simple, reassuring statement. Examples include, “I will follow good hygiene and I will keep myself and my loved ones safe,” “As a community, we will work together and manage this in a good way,” “Our health experts know what they’re doing,” and “I will make this a good story to tell when I look back on my life.” These statements are both true and encouraging.

    It’s good to check the media once or twice a day to stay informed (I find CBC’s Newsworld and Radio One to be up-to-date and informative), but turn it off the rest of the day, give your vigilance a rest, and focus on how you can put this new found self-time to good use.

  2. Improve yourself with a little online help

    Do you long for greater serenity in your life? The practice of mindfulness has enjoyed tremendous surge in popularity over the past two decades. Benefits confirmed by a multitude of peer-reviewed studies include reduced anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, decreased rumination over negative thoughts, improved regulation of emotions, and increased empathy, compassion, and relationship satisfaction. By committing just five to ten minutes a day, you can become adept in mindful meditation. The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (www.uclahealth.org/marc/) offers free online guided mindfulness meditations and podcasts. Covering a variety of topics each week since 2013, there is an abundance of insight available into the practice and benefits of mindful living. In one recent podcast amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Allyson Pimentel introduced listeners to the Mindfulness of Washing Hands.

    I cannot imagine a smarter use of time alone.

    But perhaps there is, if you have always wanted to learn a new language! Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) offers interactive ‘bite-sized’ lessons in over 30 languages. Use the free app (user rating 4.7/5), invite your family and friends and practice with others who might be self-isolating around the world!

    If you’d like to study the history of, well, the entire planet, the British Museum (britishmuseum.withgoogle.com) has a free virtual tour for you! I was curious to see the Mayanlintel from 709 AD, depicting a bloodletting ritual performed by the ruler of Yaxchilán, Itzamnaaj Bahlam (or Shield Jaguar, 681–742), and his wife, Lady K’abal Xook. The ruler is holding a flaming torch over his wife, who is pulling a rope studded with obsidian blades through her tongue. It’s absolutely gripping to realize what you’re looking at!

    Or if your interest in learning is even broader and you’d like to peer out into the universe, NASA’s entire140,000 image library is publicly available and copyright free! (www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html)
    I always enjoy NASA’s image of the day.

  3. Engage in creative project

    Do you long to write a short story or compose a song? Here’s an important thing to remember; you’re doing it for yourself. It doesn’t matter if you sing like a train going off the rails. This is a chance to express your soul in its own unique way. You can comfortably do so in your own time and in the comfort of your own home.
    The archive on my phone voice recorder is filled with compositions I created on the piano. I don’t expect any of them will ever be heard or appreciated publicly. The process of creating them is in itself blissful.

    Singing has been shown to release endorphins providing you with the ‘lifted’ feeling associated with stress reduction. Painting sharpens the mind through conceptual visualization and boosts memory. Physical expression like rock gardening facilitates connection and teaches us mindfulness. Writing elevates mood and improves confidence.

    So I invite you pick up a paintbrush, grab that guitar, put pen to paper, slapdash a sonnet, plunk a piano, rearrange a rock garden, or hew a haiku. Be the artist!

  4. Choose quality family time

    So you’re staying home with children because schools are closed due to COVID-19, but getting them together with friends is no longer advisable? Embrace the opportunity to deepen your bond. Being close to love ones releases oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ or the ‘love hormone’ and is demonstrated to positively influence prosocial behaviour and, notably, boosts immune response.

    Every parent has activities they enjoy with their children. If you haven’t yet played the popular board game, Pandemic, perhaps this would be good time to try it out with your kids. It’s a cooperative game that can facilitate discussion about the importance of working together to respond to fictional pandemic scenarios that now seem all-to-real.

    Or plan your garden with your kids, let them make some selections for themselves, order seeds online or have them delivered from the gardening centre, do the counting and seed the pots indoors if they need to be done now. This is a great way introduce children into the joy of flower or vegetable care and cultivation.

  5. Zoom in with friends

    How long has it been since you talked with that good high school friend or your cousin in Montreal? Life gets in the way. Well not this month!

    Video conferencing is a life-saver right now for social extroverts. Apps like Skype and Facetime (for apple users) offer you the chance to reach out every day you’re hibernating. Zoom.us is another good platform, free for one-to-one video as well multi-user video up to 45 minutes. Or go ‘old school’ and phone them.

    So open your contact list; who would you enjoy catching up with today?

  6. Accomplish that big overdue project

    How opportune it is to have two weeks to focus on a project that requires roughly that amount of time to complete!

    It could be a household need (e.g., organizing the attic or basement, rearranging rooms, or restoring a piece of furniture), a personal ‘to do’ list item (e.g., digitizing and cataloguing that stack of CDs, cross-referencing your recipes), or some important professional development (e.g., reading through literature on a skill that you need to be up-to-date with).

    Scale that ‘mountain’ one small summit at a time; break your project down into a number of small tasks, each between 30 and 45 minutes. Plan the sequence you need to follow then knock one or two off a day. Remember to reward yourself after (not before) each smaller task is completed. The reward should be brief but satisfying enough to motivate you to reach it. Have a big reward at the end. And share your accomplishment with friends (post a photo of that new organized room / restored furniture / pile of CD’s ready to donate).

    Because some of us have a habit of putting off big projects, if this is a commitment you want to succeed at, I suggest you start each day with the next task in line and take care to avoid the hazard of getting lost in distractions (like surfing the internet).

  7. Embrace nature

    If you’re isolating, but not in quarantine, go ahead and get outside! While keeping a social distance (two arms lengths) from others, you have many reasons to get out for a good long walk or run. Both are good for your heart and spirit. You can improve your circulation, which benefits the mind and body alike, improve your body’s production of vitamin D3 (the ‘sunshine drug’) that will strengthen your bones along with your immune system, and the experience of nature itself has been proven to improve your mood.

    Toronto has many great trails including (west to east) Etobicoke Creek, the Humber River, the Beltline, the Don Valley, the Rouge Valley, and, spread out across our waterfront, the Martin Goodman Trail.

    These days a smile and a nod with a wave of the hand is understood to mean, “Hello, but let’s notstop and chat” (that would likely pull you within the two metre rule). So enjoy it as a very personal, inward-reflective activity, your very own Camino Trail.

  8. The peaceful practice of journaling

    Much overlooked in our busy world, the art of journaling is therapeutic and restorative. We may not be able to purchase a journal at this time at Chapters/Indigo at this time (it’s closed) but we can still create one using a Word document.

    Here’s one topic suggestion: on each page, write down one moment of happiness in your life. Just two or three sentences should be sufficient to describe it. Be specific about the moment and the sensation. Not, “Attending summer camp,” for example, but “The moment I jumped off the cliff. I was falling through the air. I knew I would be okay and felt exhilarated that I conquered my fear. I had a sense of freedom as I floated in space.”

    You are just getting started. Add one a day and in just over three months you will have 100 pages with 100 happy memories. Create a cover page and title that match your personality. Insert images of mementoes (concert tickets) and photographs, if you have them to add.

    This journal can help you develop clarity about what’s really important in life, and it may one day be a real treasure when these memories become a little fuzzy.

  9. The joyful pastime of reading

    If writing isn’t your thing, you may be more of a reader. This is an extraordinary way to learn perspectives on life by others that you may not otherwise consider.

    Unlike television or video, reading is engages active learning and comprehension. Television, on the other hand, is passive— it doesn’t require any thought, it simply keeps coming. One well-known study on the impact of watching tv on children found that parts of their brain related to arousal and aggression became thicker (more dominant) the more hours of television they watched and the lower their verbal test scores. Reading, on the other hand, has been shown to decrease cognitive delays associated with age as well as reducing stress levels even moreso than popular remedies such as listening to music and going for a walk.

    So pause for a moment before you turn to Netflix yet again tonight. Is there a good read at your chair or bedside ready to pick up? At least consider alternating between the two. Give your brain something good to chew on.

    Here is my shortlist of favourite fiction, if you’re looking for suggestions:

    Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
    Atonement by Ian McEwen
    Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
    Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
    Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
    Possession by A.S. Byatt
    The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
    The Photograph by Penelope Lively
    The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
    The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
    The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
    The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart


    You may notice I have an appreciation of Canadian authors. It’s true. I believe Canadian authors embrace self-examination and have unique skill in revealing the unspoken. What is your own list of favourites and what makes each enjoyable or meaningful for you?

    I encourage you, if ordering online, to use Canada’s leading online bookseller, www.chapters.indigo.ca.

  10. Create a home yoga, workout, or dance routine

    If you have not previously learned yoga, here is a great opportunity. Go online, google yoga for beginners, and find an introductory practice that feels comfortable and easy to follow. Remember, instructors vary in personality style. Find one who feels like a good match for you.

    Home workout videos are also suddenly popular online due to COVID-19. Keep in mind any particular areas of weakness and be sensitive to muscle or joint pain that might be reminding you of your current limits (they change as we become stronger with time and patience).You don’t need expensive equipment. Grab a yoga mat if you have one, a can of beans can serve as a dumbell, a two paper plates can serve as foot sliders. But there are many essential activities — many variations on squats, planks, and lunges, hydrants, hip thrusts, push-ups and dips — that require no equipment at all. Keep it short to begin with, perhaps three sets of three exercises in rotation, alternating two or three day routines. And perhaps this will be something you continue to incorporate into your life for years to come that will continue to benefit your well being.

    And if your preference for physical activity is more exuberant, consider dancing to music in the comfort of your own home every day. It will joyfully get your heart rate up and lift your mood. For those with ‘two left feet’, look to the internet for inspiration. On YouTube, Toronto-based personal trainer Andrew Baker posted Quarantine Dance Party, an easy-to-follow routine to Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. Or learn the 5 Rhythms wave (there are many good videos available on YouTube, plus online classes to try out).

  11. Beautify the world around you


    Why not take this opportunity to add a little beauty to your community? It could be as simple as picking up litter in the park. Leave the world a little better than how you found it. A therapist I know in Vancouver creates notes to leave in nature for seniors to stop and consider, eg., “Stop and enjoy this beautiful scent.” Here in Humber Bay Park some unknown individuals have taken to painting smooth beach stones with affirmative messages.

  12. Practice ‘caremongering’

    Those of you who are not isolating are still being asked to practice social distancing during this period can help transform our experience with COVID-19 from scaringus to caring for one another. Help your neighbour and remember those who are marginalized and in greatest need at this time, including recent immigrants to Canada, anyone who is struggling with issues of poverty, mental or physical disability, the elderly and anyone who is immune compromised.

    Here are some suggestions:
  • Donations to the food bank
  • Donate blood (if people stop doing this, our supplies will plummet dangerously)
  • Delivery of groceries / other necessities for a friend, family, or neighbour who is self-isolating
  • Phone/video calls to friends or family self-isolating
  • If you have children the same age as theirs, see if they want to have a virtual play date
  • On their behalf, offer to check in with someone or something they are concerned about but can’t get to.

So there is my ‘hibernation and transformation’ list, to get your imagination started. There are an infinite number of good uses of the time available to us now, practices to engage in that will enhance our lives. We may be self-isolating as a consequence of symptoms or having traveled abroad. We may be elderly or have an underlying condition that leaves us more vulnerable to COVID-19. We be providing an essential service. Or we may simply choose to self-isolate as a precautionary practice. May we make the best use and find opportunities for personal growth within this brief but imperative interruption to our usual routine.

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