Psychiatrist Dr. Ntswaki Setlaba helps us understand why being alone (with our thoughts) during #21daysLockdownSA has created feelings of anxiety
When the Coronavirus first appeared in the global news cycle, little did we know that it would impact our lives in the way it has. Not out of pride, but probably hope that it would be contained before it reached our shores. This may have stemmed from the idea that it first affected better resourced nations, that we assumed were likely to overcome the virus.
However, this has not been the case as COVID-19 has gone on to completely overwhelm health systems, global economies and has destabilised life as we knew it. A part of the solution towards dealing with this highly contagious virus has been the mandatory call to self-isolate.
While the concept of embracing your own company has been conventionally viewed as an act of self-love, this national lockdown which, in essence, forces us to spend time with ourselves has sent many into panic mode. So, what is it about spending time in solitude that makes us so anxious?
Speaking on the Career Guide Network podcast, Psychiatrist Dr. Ntswaki Setlaba asks, “are you scared of yourself?” She says the reason most people are anxious about spending time with themselves is because they are overwhelmed by thoughts. “Most of the time we think bad thoughts — the terrible things we’ve done, the terrible things that have happened to us, our lack of achievements, what we would like to have achieved that we didn’t achieve. So now you are sitting alone with your thoughts and the things you are supposed to be dealing with keep playing over and over in your mind, and that is exactly what people with anxiety do.”
While there may be instances where you’re going through a rough patch that occupies your thoughts, Setlaba says the coping mechanisms are different when you’re around others. “People tend to invalidate their wrongs by comparing them to the next person’s life. So, if someone starts telling you about how bad things are, you start making yourself feel better by saying ‘people have worse problems than me’. So, you’re in denial and build a cocoon where you stay and watch life go by. So, when you’re sitting by yourself, you are forced to confront each and every failure that you’ve had and actually [have to] deal with it. It’s uncomfortable but it has to be dealt with.”
However, this inner voice doesn’t only apply to bad thoughts or behaviours. Setlaba says solitude is also a great time for you to practice gratitude for all your achievements. She adds that sometimes you want to boast a bit about your achievements, but you don’t because you’re afraid you’ll make people uncomfortable. “So, for the next 21 days, wake up and look at yourself in the mirror and [affirm and celebrate] yourself. It’s time for you to acknowledge everything that’s been happening in your life, question yourself, question your own existence, question a higher power that you worship. This is a time for you to sit and confront yourself no matter how uncomfortable we make ourselves,” Setlaba says.
What often follows with this type of self-introspection are changes Setlaba describes as part of expanding yourself, but she says it should come from a place of true self-knowledge. “If I want to expand myself outside of who I am then its fine, the problem comes when you start exploring or having ideas when you don’t know who you are. If you don’t fully know yourself, then how do you add on?”
The lockdown obviously puts limitations on the scope of what we can and cannot explore, but the Setlaba says this could also be an opportunity to explore other interests we’ve neglected. For example, if you love shopping, watching movies/series, reading or exercising but you haven’t had time to do any of those, then you can use this time to play catch up. However, she adds that if there are no neglected interests to pursue, you can still use this time to look into something new that could be of interest to you – learning how to cook, or meditating, or colouring books, for example. “If you can spend 21 days without feeling anxious or asking yourself ‘what next?’ then you can explore by all means,” Setlaba says.
With people on social media sharing their lockdown diaries, others documenting 15 second segments of their routine(s), it’s understandable that you’d feel under pressure to use this time to do something life changing. But you don’t have to do what others are doing. You should do activities that fulfil you, and if doing nothing is what brings you peace, enjoy it. It also counts as getting to know yourself.