SINGAPORE: We are in the second week of the circuit breaker period in Singapore.
We have been banished from the outside and ordered to go inside. Our lives, which had been marked by so much movement has suddenly been brought to an abrupt standstill. Our offices and streets have never been emptier. Our homes have never been more occupied.
Some of us may be surprised at how much we are struggling with being isolated at home. Some of us may also be surprised by the number of people who are challenging fate (and the authorities) by wandering outside.
Why is it so hard for us to stay at home?
For many of us, our hearts have not known how to be at home for a long time. This isolation time gives us time and space to reflect and rethink that for ourselves.
While I was under quarantine orders, I had much time alone to reflect on how to gain the most meaning out of isolation during this extraordinary time.
I offer four simple things we can do to help ourselves come back home again.
PAUSE TO REFLECT AND ACCEPT
First, allow yourself time and space to just pause and notice what’s really going on - to you and around you.
Our addiction to busyness and being outside can desensitise us to the multiple realities happening within our own selves as well as our homes.
READ: Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home
You might have gone through more upheaval than you realised these past few weeks. You might have been more short-tempered, withdrawn, depressed and anxious than before. Notice and accept it. Consider that you might not have realised how much you have lost in these few weeks that meant so much to you and how much you wish to have them back.
In a Harvard Business Review interview, grief expert David Kessler named the discomfort many of us are feeling right now as “anticipatory grief” over an unprecedented loss of safety and certainty at the micro and macro level.
He encouraged us to name, accept and feel our losses as grief. Because only when we acknowledge it, then can we begin the healing and empowering process of getting through to the other side.
We grieve only for things that we love. Give yourself permission to dwell quietly and notice with quiet compassion all our thoughts and emotions - especially the ugly ones. Even for those things, grieve so you can get through it and make a new choice for yourself.
It’s a global crisis. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to realise some things are not okay.
CREATE A ROUTINE WITH RITUALS
Second, as you grieve, design a routine around a range of rituals that you need to find sanity, stability and agency again and again.
In crisis, events will keep happening to us, forcing us to adjust. Over time, this increases our sense of helplessness and anxiety as we feel the locus of control moves from us to our environment. That is why one of the most repeated pieces of advice given on how to survive - even thrive - in isolation is to establish a daily routine.
Claudia W Allen, Director of the Family Stress Clinic and the director of behavioural science at the University of Virginia, explains that routine is part an evidence-based treatment for depression called “behavioural activation”.
She advised: “Be proactive and lay out an intentional structure for your day ... If you’re not working, create a schedule ... Write it down.”
Create an intentional routine that empowers you.
An empowering routine keeps your focus on the things that bring you meaning, strength and satisfaction. You learn to focus on doing what is within your control. That helps you focus less on what is beyond your control.
Balance your routine with a range of simple practices of who you most want and need to be in this crisis. Carve out a time for work and for play. A time for exercise and for stillness. A time to talk and to listen. A time to be alone and to be together.
Most of all, don’t make your routine about pursuing perfection. It’s for practising purpose and intention.
EMPATHISE WITH THE TRAGEDY OF OTHERS
Third, acknowledge and empathise with the human tragedies happening around you. You’ll notice it’s easier to do this if you practice acknowledging and accepting your own private losses.
You may know or even live with an emergency or essential worker going with very little sleep and unimaginable fears.
Or a public servant planning for unthinkable scenarios, working under intense scrutiny. Or an employee who is newly jobless and facing a devastating drop in income. Or an employer challenged to pivot or shutter their business.
They need you to notice and hold space for their pain too.
If you are one of the "luckier ones” where you and your whole family has the financial heft, job security and large home that affords you peace of mind, the potential risk you face is that this crisis may still be an intellectual curiosity rather than an emotional experience for you.
You may be privileged to emerge from the crisis unscathed but you must not leave it unchanged. That would be a terrible waste for yourself as a human being and for your community as well.
Psychologists and community engagement experts Mark Brennan, Dana Winters and Pat Dolan recently wrote, when it comes to the coronavirus, each one of us in a first respondent.
“In times of emergency, providing empathy, kindness and compassion to our fellow citizens is the single most important factor in surviving the initial stages of disaster, limiting suffering, protecting the vulnerable, and quickly recovering in the aftermath of the crisis.”
Many people are quietly navigating a stack of intersecting tragedies. We can all take time to ask how friends, family and strangers are doing and truly listen.
Acknowledge and grieve with them for their losses. Honour their attempts to keep moving forward with dignity and determination.
ACT WITH URGENCY
Fourth, we must move and act with urgency for the pain-points, purposes and people we most care about.
But we cannot move forward on this crucial stage if we are still stuck in denial of our realities, confused about our priorities and hypercritical in our relationships.
The stakes are too high. Remember, even if we do leave isolation 30 days later, there is no “normal” to go back to.
We will be stepping into a different world from the one before COVID-19. Borders may stay closed. Money may be tighter. Jobs may be fewer. The way we work, live and play will never be the same.
This is our generation’s World War. If you look at the speed at which COVID-19 is devastating every country, you will see that there actually isn’t much time for excessive grumbling, complaining or sniping at each other.
If we were truly in the middle of a war, priorities would be starkly clear. Should we spend time and energy complaining about our child’s PSLE prospects or sitting down to explain to him about what’s going on, who’s hurting and what really matters now?
Your child should study for his PSLE - it is what’s within his control. But you help him study with a different spirit when you help him also see how the world is changing, how businesses are changing or even just how his parents’ jobs and family budget are changing too.
You also want to tell your child that COVID-19 is not just damaging human lives, it is also forcing out the best in us and among us.
Some are ripping up plans overnight to help thousands of us keep jobs. Some are rallying us to save lives, families, businesses and industries. Some are rousing us to take better care of the invisible and forgotten.
Our social, emotional, psychological and spiritual reserves as a people will be even more crucial in our fight against COVID-19 than our financial reserves as a nation.
There has never been a more crucial time for us to each reflect on our pains, realign our priorities and rediscover how to relate with our people - friends, family, team members, communities, citizens, leaders.
Kuik Shiao-Yin is Co-Founding Director of The Thought Collective. She served as a two-time Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore.