How To Not Go Crazy Under Quarantine

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S1: When you were writing your book and you were spending time doing nothing. What was the most surprising thing you learned from that experience that I got more done?

S2: Huh? How do you mean that? When I stopped working really, really long hours, I was actually more productive.

S3: Oh, yeah, that was that was very surprising to me. You stay on that treadmill and you’re going nowhere.

S4: You’re listening to how to. I’m Charles Duhigg.

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S5: So I got an email from a friend of a friend a few days ago, and I imagine some of you have gotten letters similar to this. This is what he wrote. I believe that I’ve been fighting coronavirus for about two weeks and I likely exposed people I care about deeply to the virus before I realized what I had. He goes on to explain that over a week in early March, just as the pandemic was starting, he was in a different airport every single day. And, you know, he was like washing his hands like crazy and doing all the things we’re supposed to do. But he was also only sleeping a few hours every night because he was rushing to meetings and he wasn’t eating healthily. And then everyone on the planes he was on were coughing. Eventually he makes it home to the U.S. and and you kind of know how the rest of it goes. He goes to the hospital to get a test and he’s told there are no tests. All they can do is is tell him to take Tylenol and to stay hydrated and to go home and not leave his house for any reason. And eventually, thank goodness, he starts to feel better and he plans on remaining and self-quarantine for another two weeks, because that’s what the doctors told him to do.

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S6: There still aren’t any tests for him, by the way.

S7: But it’s this thing that he wrote at the end of the e-mail that really got me thinking. He wrote and I’m quoting him here. My guess is that I would have had a mild presentation of the virus if I had not been getting just two to three hours of sleep tonight for four nights straight. Right. When it was attacking me. My theory is that having a strong immune system when exposed is critically important. And we know he’s right. Right. We know that being as healthy as possible right now, both physically and mentally, it’s critical. That’s what will help us fight off the corona virus if we’re exposed. But there’s so much to be stressed about right now. There’s the news in our bank accounts and being at home with our kids who are driving us nuts and being at home with our partners who are just as anxious as we are.

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S8: And how are we supposed to get exercise when we’re cooped up all day?

S9: And not to mention this is just the start of this. It could go on for months. We’ve heard from a lot of our listeners, from you who have similar questions about how to make it through this.

S10: Hi, Charles. This is Sarah Lou Garik. I live in San Rafael, California. And oh, boy, I am filled with anxiety. My name is Lisa. I live in Florida and I live alone. And just wondering how other people living alone, working from home are coping with this social isolation can pretty rough.

S11: Hey, my name is El Paso, living in Fort Worth, Texas. I am pregnant and my family next month. And now I’m just here to get into the labor room. You know, they’re very heavy with my baby and myself.

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S12: This is a scary time. More and more people are getting sick and some people are dying. And I know we’re all feeling anxious and we’re wondering how we’re gonna live four months in isolation at this time when we really have to stay a beat and healthy. And so today we’re gonna talk to an expert who has spent the last couple of years slowing down long before this pandemic started. She’s been practicing our own kind of social distancing in her case from a hectic life and career. And she’ll share tips with us for how to not go crazy under quarantine and how to stay positive and healthy.

S13: That’s after this quick break.

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S1: OK, so let me start by asking this list, what was yesterday like for you it. Just tell me what you did yesterday.

S14: I got out a stack of books that I’d been putting off rating for a really long time. I have taken up a cross-stitching project that I actually started back in twenty seventeen and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be finished by the time the quarantine is over.

S7: This is Celeste HEADLEE, a longtime public radio host and author of the new book Do Nothing. How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Under Living.

S15: And it had occurred to us that if if anyone was equipped to help us navigate through this period of forced doing nothing or at least forced containment and being inside, it’s someone who’s who has written about how to make it into a virtue.

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S14: You know, absolutely. I’m accidentally timely. I started the book like three years ago.

S16: I do want to make the caveat that, you know, obviously this is a serious crisis. Obviously, people’s lives are at risk. People are afraid. People are anxious. And in no way should anything I say be misconstrued as me making light of what people are going through. I would hope that our conversation is going to help people rather than diminish the seriousness of the statue.

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S17: Absolutely. Absolutely.

S18: And I think one of the things that I know my family is struggling with and I mentioned a lot of listeners are struggling with this, given that there is so much anxiety around this, given that this is something that none of us would have chosen to have happen. How do we make it through this with both our minds and our bodies intact?

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S1: How do we come out of that a little bit, at least healthy and maybe even hopefully a little stronger as a community.

S16: So the good news is, is that there are real solutions to this that is going to preserve your physical and mental well-being. And they don’t cost anything. For the most part. But let me start by talking about the things you should not be doing because they’re not serving you. OK. One of the most common things to do when you’re inactive, right, when you don’t have anything to do is to pick up your phone or your tablet and start paging through social media or use online shopping and whatever it may be. And research shows that that’s not rest. First of all, your brain doesn’t distinguish between that and just work. It’s not restful. It’s not going to refresh you. It’s not going to make you feel less anxious. In fact, it is going to increase your cortisol levels, your stress hormone. It’s going to increase your heart rate. So the the default button for society right now is going to hurt you.

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S17: So what do they do then? Because, I mean, you know, I wake up in the morning. And so the first thing I do is I you know, I go and I read the newspaper, Web site, and then I look on Twitter to see if my friends are freaking out.

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S15: Then before I go to bed, like like I have this anxiety and I have to do something with it. And I’m also just bored because I don’t have all these things that normally, you know, friends and going to restaurants, the things that used to stimulate me. What do I do with that?

S19: So the first thing is I would be intentional about when you’re going to look online. So for me, it’s like the top of the hour in general. I try to only check social media and email once an hour and then I step away. And I am really careful about keeping multiple tabs closed on my computer because you don’t want your brain trying to multitask the whole time.

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S20: So here’s the first thing to keep in mind.

S4: It is really easy to spend all of your time reading and thinking about what is going on right now right there, obsessing by going online and reading every article you can do not do that schedule when you’re going to read the paper, say like 30 minutes a day and when you’re going to check Twitter and when you’re going to check Instagram and then stick to that schedule, less is more, especially right now.

S8: When you decided to write this book, do not yeah, like you weren’t we? It was obviously before the Corona virus. You weren’t you weren’t being forced to do nothing. Tell me about what was going on when you when you felt like this was something you need to write. Because I was exhausted.

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S16: I wasn’t actually. I didn’t start researching this to write for the purpose of a book. I was writing a completely different book.

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S14: But I was exhausted and I was getting sick more than I ever had in my life. And the kicker for me was that I was financially more stable and better off than I ever had been in my life, and that I thought that when you had enough money that things got easier. That’s what I thought. And yet when I had more money, I was more stressed out, busier, more overscheduled, more unhappy. I was miserable and irritable. And I knew I had to fix it. I ate something, had to change. So I started doing this research just for myself. And then I realized it.

S21: It wasn’t just me. It was pretty much every single time I talked to one of my friends, they’d say, oh, my God, that’s me.

S14: That’s my life. And that’s what I realized. It’s not me, it’s us.

S19: You know, it hasn’t been that long. Maybe maybe 40 or 50 years since people went home. And there was truly a boundary there. And they had hobbies like stamp collecting and flower pressing woodshop in the wood shop and making their own ice cream. And they were birdwatchers. And they did that just for the pleasure of it.

S18: And now that we’re stuck at home, yeah, that’s tough to do.

S19: Exactly. Exactly. So I really hope more people feel bored and maybe take up a hobby.

S22: Okay. So let me ask you, because is a you know, I think in some respects we can think of this as like a forced hard reboot for like how we live our lives. Yeah, but but before we get to that place, before we we can start to find the things that are satisfying and redemptive.

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S17: We were all anxious. Right. We still have a long way to go to try and work through just what day to day life looks like. Yeah. When you think about based on your research and your own experiences, the mental health risks that folks confront by being inside all day or being in their homes and being somewhat isolated from other people.

S1: What what should we be worried about?

S2: So here’s what keeps me up at night. Beyond concerns about the virus, because obviously we’re all worried about that. The thing is, is that we’re all the world is already in a crisis, a pandemic of loneliness. And I use that word intentionally because loneliness will kill you. Not directly, but it will lead to all the health consequences that will lead to an earlier death. In fact, loneliness degrades your internal organs. They did a study in the UK, a longitudinal study in which they followed a large group of men for a very long period of time and found that based on the number of significant social interactions and relationships they had, they could predict with a fair amount of accuracy who would still be alive in 10 years. Human beings do not do well when they’re isolated. And the problem is we’re already isolated. We have already reduced our the number of social interactions we have to a really dangerous level. And so this is probably going to make that worse.

S15: So what do we do? What do I do in order to keep in touch with friends?

S17: Given that I as you mentioned before, I don’t want to go on Twitter. I don’t want to go on social media. Just make that my my whole sort of outlets.

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S19: So pick up the phone, call all the people that you know. Call us people that you haven’t talked to in 10 years and use teleconferencing, use Skype and face time or Google Hangouts or whatever it is, because frankly, the neurological and physiological benefits of a teleconference are not that far below that of seeing someone in person.

S4: OK, so here’s the next tip for staying sane while staying indoors. Make phone calls or set up video conference happy hours.

S20: This is actually really important and it’s important that you schedule these things rather than hope that they’ll just happen organically or that all those work. Conference calls you’re on will suffice. Humans need interaction. We need socialization.

S4: And because all of our normal habits have been disrupted. It’s not going to happen unless you schedule it.

S23: For three hundred thousand years, we have evolved to communicate through the human voice. There’s no replacement for it. Let me put it to you this way. Have you ever called your wife or a friend and all they did? Well, say hello, and you immediately said, what’s wrong? Yeah. Right. In a split second, that is how quickly your brain took in some incredibly complicated and nuanced information from the sound and tone of a voice.

S19: It gives you a feeling of belonging. And belonging is the most important need that a human being has after survival.

S1: What else should we be on guard against? And what else should we be doing to make the best use of this kind of unique opportunity?

S2: So this is going to sound like I’m contradicting myself, but the next thing I would say is find ways to protect your privacy, huh? So you need both the interactions and you need a place to retreat. We know that people need at least the possibility of privacy in order to feel mentally well. If we don’t have a possibility of privacy, we will go to great lengths to find it. So when you are at home with your your wife and your kids or whomever you’re at home with, make sure there’s a place to retreat to. And frankly, I would have an open conversation about it and say, hey, listen, we’re going to be stuck in this house for a long time. You’re going to need time alone. All you have to do is ask me for it. And I respect it. And the same goes for me. We all just need to be able to retreat when it’s necessary.

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S15: Well, what you’re saying makes a ton of sense to me because all humans have this need to feel in control. Right. We have this need to feel some agency.

S17: And I think one of the things that’s so hard about about being quarantined in about this period that we’re living through is that it feels like we’re losing control, that we if we don’t have control over whether we’re going to get sick or not, we don’t have control over what’s going on in the world. We don’t have control over whether we can leave our house, which psychologically is so important.

S2: It really is important. And I would also say once a day, stop and think about all the ways that you are lucky. Right? Cause here’s the part of gratitude that I like to focus on. It really is one of the most underestimated of virtues because we do get an immediate benefit from it. It is it is a stress reliever. It is a excellent for changing your perspective. And so, yeah, you may not be able to go out and go to your party. Maybe your St. Patrick’s Day plans were ruined. But I bet you could immediately list 10th ways in which you’re luckier than the average person.

S4: Celeste is absolutely right about this. Studies show that figuring out ways to feel like we’re in charge and and being grateful for what we already have, it can really help our mental health when we come back. Celeste will give us more advice for when you’re inside a cramped apartment and your kids are driving you nuts. Stay with us.

S9: We’re back with Celeste HEADLEE talking about how to keep even keeled under quarantine. And we’ve been getting a lot of questions like this.

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S24: Hello, my name is Chris. I live in Lihi, Utah. My wife and I are having challenges because while we’re extremely grateful and we consider ourselves blessed to have work from home job, we also have our 2 year old daughter. She’s a little cutey, but she wants a lot of our attention. So we’ve been having some difficulty trying to juggle when she can get on a call, when I can participate in my calls, when we can give attention to our daughter. So, yeah. Any help you guys have for us will be very welcome.

S1: When it comes to kids, how should we be thinking about how we manage to self-quarantine for them? This is gonna be a big part of their life. Their memory of their life. Is this an opportunity? Should we. Should we be helping them learn something special?

S2: So there’s a ton of evidence showing that overparenting, overscheduling, trying to turn everything that your kid does into a learning or advancement opportunity is in the end detrimental to their learning and development. There is a ton of evidence for it, and yet we can’t stop doing it. And look, I’m a parent, too. I get it. And there’s nothing wrong with keeping your kids structured in terms of their schooling. But at a certain time, you gotta just let them work through it and let them be bored and let them figure out how to self-soothe and occupy themselves. And, you know, my mom would give us a big box full of craft materials and say, leave me alone. I’ll see you in a couple hours. You know, she was a single parent of four kids. If she hadn’t been able to tell us to get the heck out of the house or get the heck out of her hair, at least she would’ve gone crazy. This over structuring we have is not only exhausting us, but it’s also making our kids less mature, less resilient and less prepared for the world that they’re going to have to face.

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S18: So for people who are listening right now, who have young kids at home, what’s the best thing that we can do to help them right now?

S21: So tell me about what did you do during your summer days when you were growing up?

S22: When I was a kid, I mean, basically, like, I would just get on my bike and, like, disappear. I think I read a lot of books and set off a lot of firecrackers.

S19: Yes. So you already know what you should be doing because that’s how you grew up.

S15: What about helping them, helping manage them through this anxiety? Because I think they feel like this is a big upheaval.

S1: Like, what do we know about. About giving kids enough structure so that they don’t feel anxious when things are changing so much.

S2: I mean, I can tell you what I would do as a mom in terms of communication. Human beings crave information, honest information. And I will also say that kids know when you’re bullshitting them. They know. So one of the best things that you can do for your kids is give them information.

S25: OK. So the next suggestion is and this is true for all of us. Be honest with our kids. Tell them what we’re worried about and how this is hard for us, because otherwise their imaginations are gonna run wild. And that’s sometimes is worse. And that honesty that’s also key with our partners who are probably spending a lot more time with it.

S21: You know, it’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve seen the articles coming out of China that shown there’s a record number of divorce filings since the quarantine.

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S23: This is a real concern and you have to be honest with one another about it.

S2: You have to understand that especially if you are working from home, that you need to respect each other’s quiet and privacy and space the same way you would respect a co-workers. You can’t suddenly start treating the home during work hours as though it was your living room, even if it is.

S7: And remember, this could go on for a long time.

S2: The other thing is, is that leave the door open for them to complain, and you should have that conversation now and say, look, we’re going to get on each other’s nerves. So let’s let’s set the rules of engagement for how we’re going to work through this in a way where we don’t say awful things to each other. Either one of us. Feedback is hard. It’s hard for all of us to take feedback and you’re about to get more feedback from your partner than you’ve gotten in quite a while.

S1: Okay. So let me ask you this. So we we’ve we’ve got some tips for the long haul, which is, you know, we’re going to start making phone calls. We’re going to protect our privacy. What else should we be doing?

S16: I mean, yes, you should get dressed every day. Yes. If you can make your bed every day, do so.

S21: Don’t allow yourself to sort of descend into an animalistic state. Right. To keep yourself together.

S19: But there’s some really simple things. Take a walk. It’s quite easy while walking to keep your 6 foot distance from other people. And again, we are evolutionarily and biologically primed to take benefit from looking at trees and flowers and bushes. You will get a release of stress by taking a walk. I would also say listen to some music and I don’t mean listen to music while you’re doing something else. Remember, I don’t know if you did this when you were younger where you would sit down with your C.D. and like, just sit there and go through the music that you owned. Yeah. Do that. Enjoy an actual piece of music without multi-tasking.

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S1: It’s interesting because in some ways I think that what you’re saying is we should hold ourselves to slightly different standards, rather like the idea of listening to an album without doing anything else by myself.

S17: Would have been crazy to me, like I would have said, like, no, I want to listen with my kids and like, you know, talk to them about like what they’re hearing in the music. And it’s a it’s an opportunity for a special movement or it’s background noise while I’m while I’m doing a chore.

S22: But you’re right. There was a time when I just listened to music because I loved listening to music.

S19: Yeah. And it may not be music that’s suitable for your kids. And it may be that sometimes what you’re doing can just be what it is rather than also an opportunity.

S26: What about that worry of these other things that you can’t control, like what’s happening in the country or friends that might get sick or loved ones that are elderly or or at risk? We know that that worry is going to be there when we know we’re going to be anxious. How do we manage it in a way that it doesn’t it doesn’t take over a life?

S2: I mean, I’m checking in on people constantly and I’m asking every single one of them, what can I do? Can I do anything for you? Can I help you? Do you have ten minutes? I want to call you on the phone. Hearing their voice makes me feel better. Find something to do for other people to get yourself out of your own head. Because all that other stuff, what’s happening with the country? What’s happening with the economy? You can do nothing about that. I mean, I just think. Check. Check on other people. Leave notes on your neighbor’s door. Hey, I’m here or I’m going to the grocery store. I can leave the bags outside your door. Do you need anything? Human beings need each other. We are immunocompromised when we are alone. So start to rebuild that that network. The web that keeps us all alive and keeps us all healthy.

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S7: And here’s the most important thing in some ways. As hard as this time is, as as tragic as it is. We’re hopefully going to come out the other side and make it through this. And when we do, hopefully we’ll be better prepared to make choices not just to survive, but to live a full and meaningful life.

S27: Celeste mentioned to me how important it was to listen to music. And so since she’s under quarantine right now, since she’s at home, I asked her, so what music are you going to listen to today?

S21: It’s interesting. I am. I’ve already pulled out. And it really is an actual C.D. of the soundtrack to the gospel at Colonus, which is the epic story retold as though it were the Greek choir where a gospel choir and the Blind Boys of Alabama sing the role of a piece. It sounds great.

S5: Thank you to Celeste HEADLEE for calming our nerves with some great advice and for giving us some things to think about over the next few months. I hope this episode has helped you wrap your head around our current moment and what you can do to avoid going crazy under quarantine. Let’s all help each other and we’ll get through this together. You know, as as long as we all stay at least six feet apart.

S28: Given problem, the need solving senators noted how to slate.com and we might be able to help. And we’ll be taking your coronavirus questions every week and even asking you to help us provide some answers.

S29: My name is Perry and I need your help with how to convince a family member that COVA 19 is a real pandemic and a real threat.

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S28: If you have your own advice or tips for what’s working for you. Call us at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1 and leave a voicemail and we may play it on the show.

S30: Finally, we want to help as many people as we can right now. And so if you have a moment, we would really appreciate it if you give us a rating, a new review and if you would tell your friends about the show. It really does make a big difference. Thanks. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen is our production assistant and married Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Sung Park, Aisha Soldier and Rubins Sagala for introducing us to the letter writer in today’s episode. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.