Social distancing is hard, man. Doubly difficult? Being cooped up with a few roommates, especially if you don’t know each other very well. (Read how to self-isolate with a partner in blissful harmony here.) So how do you maintain your mental health in such close quarters? We called on a few mental health pros to share why social distancing alongside others can be so hard on us – and their best tips for making it out of social isolation with our housemate relationships intact.
SOCIAL DISTANCING CAN BE HARD
Social distancing can be a slog for numerous reasons, according to J. Matsui De Roo, a Vancouver-based anti-oppression counselor. “Anxiety and stress are normal human reactions to uncertainty and possible danger. Our executive functioning – the way our brains help us manage our life tasks –sometimes doesn’t work as well when we’re under a lot of stress,” they say. “And adding to that, we tend to seek out closeness to others when we feel threatened, and limiting the ways we can do that takes away that comfort. So it’s natural that you may find it emotionally and logistically harder than you expect to follow the protocols of social distancing and self-isolating.”
It’s also hard because we’re social animals, says Tobey Mandel, a Montreal-based psychologist with Connecte Psychology Clinic. “We’re creatures who thrive on connection. It’s one of the fundamental ways that we operate as a society. Connecting with others give us a sense of security, purpose, motivation and creativity. To have that shift into a primarily online format is certainly challenging for our well-being,” she says.
Plus, when our mood is low, we often benefit from taking small actions, like going to the local coffee shop, joining a friend for a walk, getting a haircut, or going to a yoga class, Mandel says: “Now that that’s no longer an option, it can feel difficult to figure out how to manage our moods with limited choices to take actions.”
Then boredom kicks in. “For the majority of us, being in a confined space with minimal stimulation can very quickly lead to feelings of boredom. The lack of change in the environment can lead to increased feelings of irritability, decreased concentration, and restlessness,” according to Sarah Ahmed, cofounder of Toronto psychotherapy clinic WellNest and wellness counselor at the University of Toronto. “Self-isolating will increase chances of getting into conflict with your roommates, especially when there are not clearly defined private spaces.” Over the past couple weeks, she has seen an increase in clients experiencing increased interpersonal conflict with family members or loved ones due to being in confined space where everyone “feels stuck,” she says. So how can you feel…unstuck?
BRUSH UP ON YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS
The most crucial tool in avoiding social distancing conflict?Communication! Each person may be coping with COVID-19 and its accompanying stressors in different ways, according to Mandel: “One person may be more relaxed, and the other more concerned, and that may lead to conflict over how to self-protect during this period of time or what to discuss regarding the news or how one expects the other person to feel about it. As a result, this is an important time to practice checking in with each other regularly about your needs and your emotional state, and validating each other in your feelings about the current situation.”
Then there’s the space issue. “Don’t take it for granted that you know your roommate’s needs around space when you’re spending most of your time at home,” De Roo cautions. “Share what your needs are, and listen to theirs. Be clear about how much down-time you need.” They also suggest scheduling do-not-disturb times, and agreeing ahead of time how you can communicate that you need it in the moment. “You’ll want to know what expectations everyone has about how much they’ll social interact when sharing the space, too,” they say. “If one or more of you are working from home, be clear about when you are or aren’t available.”
This also includes keeping everyone in the household up-to-date on any potential COVID-19 risk factors, De Roo says: “You will also find it useful to be on the same page about how you’re managing logistical safety concerns, such as how much contact with outside people is okay, how to handle grocery shopping and sanitizing items that enter or leave the house.” If someone in your household is in a higher risk category for COVID-19, you should also make an agreement for everyone to adopt more stringent protocols that protect the more vulnerable person, they say. “Be gentle, keep lines of communication open, and recognize this is a temporary measure to keep everyone safer.”
And check in, check in, check in, says Mandel: “It’s helpful to check in with each other’s emotional temperature regularly to help support one other through the natural waves of emotion during this crisis. By knowing how the others are feeling, we can also then orient ourselves to meet their potentially changing needs and vice versa.”
KEEP YOUR HOUSEMATE RELATIONSHIP STRONG
“Most of us have set routines and are used to our roommate’s routines as well,” according to De Roo. “Removing these routines means that we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other and we may find ourselves more easily irritated. This is particularly true in a stressful time.”
Try these strategies from Ahmed to make it out, roomie relationship intact:
—Establish a household routine. Just as you should try and establish some routine for yourself, you should also try and establish some routine, chores-wise. Plan out who will do what, and when.
—Schedule in some time for non-solo activities. Examples could be planning a trip, playing board games, cooking a meal together, or doing some redecorating. Print out a weekly calendar and ask everyone to pick a fun activity for the day. Other ideas? Try group workouts, an in-home yoga session, dinner and movie nights, or painting.
—Set some ground rules. Ahmed also suggests calling a house meeting to hash out some house rules for personal space, solo time, and shared areas to ensure everyone has equal access. “Challenges include how to share the space in a novel way,” according to Mandel. Perhaps this means sharing meals more than usual during a time where normal eating routines are disrupted, or exploring how often to cook together versus taking turns in the kitchen. Also, try and figure out how to respect each other’s sleep schedules if someone is working from home, and what to do if your roommate is on a video-chat while you were hoping to unwind. “This situation requires a lot of communication and flexibility regarding respecting each other’s needs,” Mandel says. “Being direct but gentle and compassionate is a helpful approach.”
Figure out how much alone time you need and how much you’d like to connect, she says. Then, check in with your roommates to see their preferences. “From there, you can be open about how to share your space in the most balanced way possible,” Mandel says. “For instance, maybe one of you would like to do a yoga video a few times a week, which may monopolize a shared space. Being open about this helps roommates share with you whether this works for them and if so, when and how to proceed. Perhaps each of you would like to share an activity together to connect, but then would like to watch a movie separately to unwind later. Essentially, communication and trial and error is key here. Discuss, try to see what works, discuss some more and adjust accordingly.”
And, Mandel says, never forget: “you’re both coping with a stressful situation, and so, when possible, try to give your partner or roommates extra leeway if they are somewhat irritable.” Good luck!
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