A lone whelk on the Ocracoke beach. Photo: C. Leinbach

Ask a mental health professional

By Earle Irwin

Question: For those of us who live alone, this seclusion required by COVID-19 restrictions can be very lonely. Do you have suggestions about how to turn all this free time into something productive and rewarding instead of a cause for depression?

Response: As I labored over the first draft of my response to this question, I had a strong sensation of déjà vu. Then I realized that I had partially answered this question in the first article I wrote in response to COVID-19. Please see https://ocracokeobserver.com/2020/03/22/how-to-weather-this-latest-storm/

Along with those suggestions for productive activities, another important measure that can assist in managing forced seclusion is the incorporation of a daily schedule. Am I sounding like a broken record, repeating a recommendation I made in my first Q&A column?  https://ocracokeobserver.com/2020/05/06/mental-health-professional-asks-for-your-questions/

While a single person may not need a schedule to choreograph the sharing of time and space in the way a family might, a schedule can be helpful in creating a sense of getting something done—basic needs met and achievements checked off a list. Of course, each secluded person living alone has different needs. Perhaps a good starting point is to ask yourself: what do I need to get through each day? Some basic needs will emerge: food, shelter, sleep, exercise. When living alone, the default plan easily becomes I’ll eat when I’m hungry; I’ll go to bed when I’m sleepy. If that laisse faire arrangement is not working for you, here are some things to try.

Rather than assume that sometime during the day you’ll get around to addressing your basic needs, schedule them in. A pajama day can be good for the soul once in a while, but as a general practice, if you want to feel productive, get up and get dressed. Tend to your personal hygiene. Eat your first meal of the day.

Seclusion and lack of external stimulation conjure a perfect storm that can impact brain chemistry and in doing so, impair cognitive processes. That depression that you mentioned occurs when thoughts go in a negative direction, so that we’re left to struggle with negative perceptions like abandonment and worthlessness. When we follow a schedule that addresses our own basic needs, we reinforce messages of self-care—”I got this,” and self-worth—”I am worth having my basic needs met.”

These messages are powerful allies in warding off a depressive downward spiral. In addition, a schedule sets up an opportunity to achieve a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, you can look at your personal schedule posted on the refrigerator and see that indeed you did do at least some of the things that you planned for yourself. At worst, you have a ready outline for where you can focus your efforts tomorrow.

Be sure that you have built some rewards or celebrations into your schedule so that when you tackle that sandy kitchen floor in the morning you have a leisure activity to look forward to: perhaps a walk on the beach or a movie binge. Try to go to bed each night with a plan for something to look forward to the next day. That something can be as simple as a phone call to a friend, a treat whipped up in the kitchen, or an afternoon porch sit. Around the village I’ve heard of a variety of creative ways folks are making their secluded lives more interesting: sprucing up their yards, planting colorful installations, playing musical instruments on their porches for impromptu concerts that neighbors get to enjoy.

We are fortunate here on Ocracoke that warmer weather and sunnier days are with us, giving us opportunities to get outdoors, sit on our front steps, wave at passersby. Movement is essential to mental health. So whatever way you are able to move your body, whether it be isometric exercises in your armchair or a walk, a bike ride, a run on the beach—make sure it’s in your schedule.

I’m answering this question as we head into a lessening of COVID-19 restrictions, yet thank you for asking, I think the question has ongoing importance. In my work, I hear many whisperings of anxiety about future implications of coronavirus.

For those who are not required to leave home for employment, staying-at-home remains an option even as official orders to do so are lifted. If you find yourself anxious about the situation, you may choose to quell those anxieties with the safety of home. Hopefully these suggestions will allow you to do so in the healthiest, most pleasant manner possible.

Mental health professional, Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, has been available to all residents of Ocracoke since March and she will be here until August.

Many on the island are benefiting from her counseling expertise to help cope with the trauma of Hurricane Dorian since Sept. 6 and now the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earle Irwin. Photo by Bob Lineberry

The Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team, with funding provided by the Outer Banks Community Foundation, brought Earle to the island to provide islanders mental health support and education at no charge as they cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with.

We’ve invited Earle to answer your questions in a column that we will publish from time to time. Please submit your questions (all names will be confidential) at info@ocracokeobserver.com and watch for her response in a future column. Or, for a more personalized response, contact her directly at 703-863-1243 or earleirwin@gmail.com.

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