We can look to people with chronic health conditions for ideas on how to survive – and even thrive – in self-isolation at home, writes Louise Thornley.
Lady Gaga told the world in 2017 that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. Affected by severe pain, fatigue, sleep problems and depression, her health has sometimes forced her to pull out of performances – she cancelled 10 European concerts in 2018.
Gaga's become a pro at self-isolation; at her worst, major health crashes mean her only option is to rest.
Even before her health diagnosis, she toyed with self-isolating behaviour as a way to cope with fame. In her first few years of fame, she admits she used to hide in her house.
"I hid a lot… And it really drove me crazy. So I've really had to make more of an effort to go out more. I mean, can you imagine what it's like not to feel real wind? Honestly, I hadn't felt real wind for years!"
In a striking change of tune, in 2017 Gaga invited the world into her home with a revealing Netflix documentary called Gaga: Five Foot Two. Here she allows the film crew to show her struggling with fibromyalgia symptoms. She's hiding no more.
Living in Wellington, I don't share Gaga's experience of years without feeling any wind. But I do have fibromyalgia, and self-isolation is now part of my life. Debilitating fatigue and flu-like symptoms, combined with widespread pain, are why I regularly have to stay at home.
Before fibromyalgia, I was an active, outdoors person who was constantly busy. Now I can often be found on the couch. In the past 18 months I've probably had more screen time than in the previous 48 years.
Fibromyalgia isn't rare. Arthritis New Zealand estimates that about one in 50 people will develop the condition, but overseas estimates are even higher – up to three times as many.
In total, the number of New Zealanders with fatigue conditions must be enormous. A wide range of health conditions can involve significant fatigue, like multiple sclerosis, ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia, cancer and autoimmune conditions.
So most people will know someone who experiences life-limiting fatigue on an ongoing basis – with periods of time partly or fully house-bound. Maybe now that self-isolation is so important for our collective health, people could ask us how we cope with the regular bouts of hibernation. We're pretty experienced at it.
Tips for coping with self-isolation
Here are 10 tips for living the isolated life, informed by my learning and research into what works for improving health:
- Connect regularly with friends or anyone who has a fatigue condition
- There is much to learn from other people's experiences, whether you have a health issue or not. Try asking someone with a fatigue condition for advice on what they do to cope – they will probably appreciate sharing what life's like for them. You can phone, text, email or interact online.
- Keep some kind of routine going
- We humans like structure and certainty, especially in uncertain times. Watch out for things that make you feel worse, e.g. spending too much time watching Netflix or looking at Facebook, or getting overwhelmed by following every detail in the developing media stories on the Covid-19 situation. Put limits on how long you spend on screen-based activities (then you'll appreciate the time you do have).
- Work on your mindset and take control of your day as much as possible
- Avoid feeling like a victim. Take the opportunity to prioritise the things you really want to do, while you have fewer obligations than usual. Learn something new or start something that's been on your to-do list for a while
- Chat regularly with anyone you can – some say five social contacts each day is vital
- Call or text your family and friends, talk to neighbours over the fence (keeping two metres apart). Being alone isn't the same as loneliness – solitude can actually be great for us. Be proactive to avoid strong or persisting feelings of loneliness – in contrast to being alone, feeling lonely is bad for our health.
- Aim for some balance in how you interact with those you live with
- Build in time and space to be by yourselves, as well as times to be together
- Spend time outside every day
- Sunlight and fresh air help our physical health and state of mind (don't hide at home all the time like Lady Gaga did).
- Spend time in nature – with pets, walk to the local park, do gardening
- If you're not getting out enough, or missing the outdoors, then research shows that even just looking at photos of nature can boost our wellbeing.
- Be active or at least move (depending on your physiological capacity for exercise)
- Physical activity and even gentle movement is medicine – and even more important when you're spending more time than usual indoors. There are tons of great online videos to do easy movement like yoga, tai chi and qigong (and many are free) – as well as stretching and more strenuous workouts.
- Read piles of books and be creative
- Write, draw, paint, make stuff.
- And lastly, apply all the usual basic health recommendations
- Like eating healthy food, drinking enough water and prioritising your sleep.
This week Lady Gaga, along with Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, has urged her Instagram followers to choose to self-isolate in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. And she's now self-isolating at home and avoiding her parents and grandparents as a protective measure. No doubt this seasoned self-isolator will be good at it – and of course it helps to be filthy rich. Self-isolating in a mansion with professional massage and wellbeing treatments on demand can't be all bad.
But Gaga reckons being famous is the most isolating thing of all: "I don't think I could think of a single thing that's more isolating than being famous."
Well, at least most of us don't have to worry about that.