Self-isolation: Battle is in the mind, not with the virus

Avoid unnecessary social contact. Stay away from crowds. Don’t go shopping during peak hours. Keep your distance.

When the Prime Minister delivered his unprecedented message earlier this week, it signalled a dramatic change to normal life as we know it.

For me, my family and friends - and surely anyone else who has been asked to do the same - it conjured up vivid memories of forced separation from loved ones and being denied the most basic leisure and social pursuits.

I don’t claim to have any scientific expertise, but I do have recent experience of self-isolation. In February 2018 I underwent a stem cell transplant following successful treatment for leukaemia. After a few weeks recovering in hospital, I was advised to stay at home and avoid contact with anyone displaying any signs of illness - or anyone who had recently been abroad - for a period of three months.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, I’ve regularly been asked about my experience of self-isolation, and what it actually means in practice.

At its very core, the key to managing self-isolation is the ability to challenge everything you perceive to be normal. Credit: PA

I’ve read several articles over the past few days about how to beat the boredom which invariably comes with any period of isolation. As millions of people contemplate locking themselves away from the rest of society, there’s been an outbreak of informative guides on which television box sets to binge on, which books to read and which games to play.

They are helpful on one level, but a long way from the answer. This is not a rainy day in the summer holidays. If you think a few seasons of Breaking Bad will suffice, you’re in for a shock.

A successful period of self-isolation is, by its very definition, one where the primary battle is not with a virus. It will be a mental fight, not a physical one.

At its very core, the key to managing self-isolation is the ability to challenge everything you perceive to be normal. Quickly accepting that things are going to be unrecognisably different for a period of time will make a tremendous contribution to easing the mental adjustment.

Crowds are the new threat. Credit: PA

It won’t be forever, but for now it means scrapping plans and routines. It means a change in behaviour. And it means a new set of priorities.

During my period of isolation, my family vigilantly guarded the front door. If a visiting friend gave the slightest sniffle or cough they were denied entry, and another much needed coffee or lunch was erased from the diary.

Other times friends would call me and say: “I’ve had a bit of a cough, I think I feel OK today, should I come to your house?” As much as I wanted to see them, I had to ask myself whether I would put my health at risk for a social engagement, one which I had been looking forward to.

A successful period of self-isolation is, by its very definition, one where the primary battle is not with a virus Credit: PA

Faced with the prospect of several days in bed with a high temperature, hacking cough and aching bones - or even worse - in risk assessment terms, it was always a no brainer.

Life is a rolling risk assessment. We aren’t consciously aware as we go about our daily business, but from the minute we leave the front door we are continuously weighing up the risks associated with our actions.

The potential risk of being involved in road accidents, train crashes or random acts of violence doesn’t prevent the vast majority of us going about our daily business. But we are constantly making judgements, and an inherent ability to readjust and recalibrate risk criteria will prevent us from walking in to what we perceive to be dangerous situations.

Now there is a new threat: crowds. Or simply proximity to anyone you don’t know. I found myself looking through shop windows and wondering whether I could get in and out without going near anybody. The same applied to restaurants - could I see a free table surrounded by other empty tables? If not, I wouldn’t go in. Travelling on public transport outside of the quietest periods was a non-starter.

For me, and I’m sure this will be the same for millions of others, social distancing and self-isolation didn’t mean confinement inside the four walls of my house. It’s essential to get fresh air, to go for walks and just to see the bright colours nature has to offer. It will enrich the soul in a way that no box set ever will.

Even with current restrictions, a coffee in the park is still achievable. Credit: PA

We’re human, and we all need contact. But it doesn’t need to be physical. Despite the front doorstep triage endured by my visitors, I managed to keep in contact with people I care about. If I was cut off from friends who were unwell, we would schedule a lengthy video call. It makes a huge difference in the day. Even with current restrictions, a coffee in the park is still achievable. The warmer weather and longer days are on the horizon, and that will make the next few months more bearable than if we were asked to self-isolate in the middle of winter.

It’s essential to empty diaries for the next few months. It’s a waste of time pinning too much hope on a party or weekend away which you desperately want to happen. The chances are, it probably won’t. I found that the quicker I accepted this, the easier it became.

I discovered that most plans can be moved, and almost every social occasion can be put on hold. There’ll be other parties, other concerts, other social gatherings. My mum was planning to celebrate her 75th birthday with a big family party this summer, but that will have to wait. My heart breaks for couples who have paid for wedding celebrations, but nothing is more important than health and well-being.

Normal life will return. Credit: PA

It’s so important to have a target. I was told the crucial period for me was 100 days, so my fiancée and I planned a weekend away to celebrate the milestone. This difficult period won’t last forever, so setting achievable targets is essential for mental survival.

During my period of isolation I had a terrible fear of missing out. At the time, I was in the minority, watching normal life go on around me (and watching football on TV). This is a very different climate, and over the next few months - and in the truest sense of the phrase - we really are all in it together.

This clearly poses an entirely different challenge, one for society as a whole, not limited to circles of friends and family. There are already examples of goodwill and altruistic behaviour, and organisation on an ultra-local level with a number of streets establishing WhatsApp groups and other ways to communicate on social media. Normal life will return. The pubs and restaurants will reopen. But for now, these are the new priorities.

To this day I still find myself carrying out a series of checks before I walk in to any building or board any train. My recalibrated risk assessment. One thing is certain - when this is over, you’ll never take the normal things in life for granted again.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know