What I learned from two years of enforced social distancing & social isolation due to injury

I had an accident that led to two years of unbearable pain and repeated surgical interventions, interspersed with time in the house unable to do most things due to the pain of sitting, walking and standing. For many weeks and months I would barely leave the house, and when I did the physical cost would be having to return to lying on the floor or bed for a number of days to recover. Over time most of my social connections with the world disappeared and I became too depressed to interact with a world that I could not take part in, so I shut down all of my social media accounts. It was a very hard couple of years, but as the world enters social distancing and social isolation, I thought that I would share a few of the things that I learned.

Mental health is wrapped up with physical and emotional health

It is an obvious statement, but it takes time and effort to take care of these three interlinked aspects of health. I suddenly found myself at home with all of the time the usual rituals of meals totally disrupted. It was easy to let the nutrition and hydration slide. But actually, I found that meals can be moments of love and connection that have extra meaning. So I learned the importance of planning for them, looking forward to them and celebrating the flavour of the food and the life and energy that it was giving me.

Movement and fresh air is also really key. For me this was regulated by the physical rehabilitation exercises and targets set by the medical professionals. Many of them were complete agony, and walking to the corner of my road without overwhelming pain was beyond me for over 18 months. So I started to explore ideas like nature therapy and forest bathing. What could I do in my garden and in the local woodland to help my mental, physical and emotional health? I think that there are some deeply spiritual things that can be found, and I certainly explored much deeper parts of my mind and spirit in that time alone.

I had to really actively manage my anxiety. The pressures were overwhelming – lying on the floor unable to move and awake day and night with the pain, every worry in the world would crowd my mind – both about short-term and long-term survival. I could not resolve any of them and was totally in the power of the medical professionals and the wider universe. I developed a discipline of evaluating each one and deciding whether it was something that needed my attention today, or not today (ie later). Then I would write down the ones for today and work on how I could move those forward. All of the others I wrote on a separate page (to calm my mind by confirming that it would not be forgotten) and if there was a clear date, or a clear trigger for action, then I would write that down next to it. If others started worrying on my behalf about something that was not on today’s list, I would simply say to them, that is not today’s problem. These are today’s problems. Is there anything that you can do to help me with these?

I had to create a structure for the day, complete with little rewards and recovery moments!

In a topsy-turvy world, I came to realise the importance of ritual and routine for calming the mind. After a long period of everything being all over the place, I started to implement a timetable of when to eat (even if I had no appetite), bedtimes (even if I could not get into bed and could not sleep), getting up etc (even if I could not get up). In time the body started to respond to this routine and the Doctor helped to balance the drugs so that I did start to sleep.

I also started a timetable for each day – even if I never moved from one room. Rather than endless box-sets where the hours merged into each other and I was not sure if it was morning or afternoon, I started to make a plan for each day and break it into sections with rests and recovery in between. Given the levels of pain that I was in, days could be very different according to how my body was holding up. So I would start in the morning by getting a sense of how my body was and reviewing my list of what I had to try and solve today. Knowing that my energy would decline across the day, I would start with the hardest thing and promise myself a reward at a certain time, if I kept working at it until then.

Being a very goal-driven person, I had previously always set myself rewards based on completing the task and achieving the outcome. But I learned here that the challenges were too challenging, and so much like a running programme where the efforts are measured in time, not distance, I moved to a time-based approach. So for instance, if I could work on this until 11am, I would reward myself with a peppermint tea and a look out of the window to see what birds were in the garden.

I also kept a note of how my pain and energy levels varied with what I had done each day, and fine-tuned my timetabling to try to make days more manageable and find moments of joy, appreciation and laughter in each day. These were hard and took searching out, as life did seem very bleak.

Trying something new

With all of the things that I used to do as a triathlete beyond me due to my medical condition, I had to try new things. And some of them have been life-changing!

I always loved yoga, but now found the poses too aggressive for my body. But there are lots of free YouTube videos of Tai Chi and Qigong. These have been proven to have massive impact on all aspects of health and combine mental focus with physical and emotional wellbeing elements.

Just a short period in the morning can be a perfect way to get started, as these videos show:

Or for 20 minutes of Qigong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwlvTcWR3Gs

Taking longer-term distance learning course was fun and helped when the situation rolled on

One of the most challenging things was that I always thought that I would be better in 4-6 weeks, but the months rolled on and there could be a tendency to despair.

I was desperate to keep my mind active – both to ensure that I could get work again when I was better, and also for the joy of learning and challenging myself mentally. I loved the free distance learning via Future Learn (https://www.futurelearn.com/) where I studied for eight different courses, each of six to ten weeks long. These included online chat with other students, as well as paced weekly learning and the chance to then explore the subject more with further background reading.

The sense of something ongoing and paced in weekly does in a world where every day seemed unpredictable really helped me. Plus I learned a lot about things that really interested me!

Others helped me to be really inventive on the things that I could do!

Even when I was lying on my back on a thing memory foam mattress on the lounge floor, the ideas that others came up with to fill the time were really fun! Music playlists, adult colouring books, writing and blogging, even playing the guitar….

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and once I started to push the anger, sadness and despair to one side then I could start to engage with creativity and invention.

Technology can be a great enabler to beat loneliness

Loneliness is deeply painful and a dangerous place to inhabit for long.

I was lucky to have a couple of key friends and my sister who would message, WhatsApp, phone and video chat on a regular basis. One used to call me every time that she was walking to the swimming pool and we would talk. These were lifelines in a world where I was sinking.

I learned the importance of keeping talking the hard way. It turned out that it is a mental and physical muscle that needs working and because it was under-used for so long, I can still find it really hard to find the right word or phrase, and am still conscious that I miscue in the usual social pacing of conversation. This adds stress and self-doubt in social interactions, which make it harder to re-engage with the world.

So how about:

  • setting up Skype or Facetime to chat for a wider family meal
  • having a book group via Zoom or Google hangouts
  • using your coffee break to message or call a friend and chat
  • have your pub night with friends virtually where you connect and chat with a drink in your hand, without leaving your own home

There are great books, podcasts, YouTube and video content

Finally, I would say that I found inspiration and insight in some amazing writing and content. This was a luxury that previously was confined to when I was on holiday, and it has been so exciting to read so many wonderful books.

In summary

Whilst this may seem like a terrible custodial sentence right now, I hope that you can and will find ways to make good things come out of it. I wanted to share my experiences of the last two years to try and help a little as we all step into a time when we need to reach out and support those around us. I know that things seem very frightening at the moment, but the human race has come through worse things than this, and with a little luck maybe it will help us to reassess some of our priorities so that we can make the world a better and kinder place.

I wish you every good wish, and if you want to chat with me – then tweet or DM me on Twitter @AthleteInjured

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