Drinking a cup of tea at sunset

Surviving self-isolation part 3 – be kind to yourself

This week, struggling to decide what to focus on for my next blog post, I reached out on Twitter to ask my fellow ADHD brains what they’re struggling with the most now that they’re stuck at home.

In response, I got people talking about the lack of external motivators, about time-blindness, about difficulty getting started in the absence of deadlines. I have a few good tricks I use to help with those, so buckle up next week as I get into my favourites.

But there was an unspoken theme to many of the responses, one that strikes right at the heart of what we’re all living through – and it’s one that can’t be addressed by clever productivity tricks.

The world is scary as hell right now, and our brains can’t deal with it.

Life in lockdown

None of my Twitter respondents actually said the world is scary as hell right now and my brain can’t deal with it. They said things like:

I get so easily overwhelmed. Doing normal things helps me feel grounded, but those options are severely limited right now. Even a walk in the park is a risk.

[I] hyperfocus on my job (WFH now), and then as soon as I clock out, my mind & body just STOP, and I can’t seem to get anything else done. I just seem even MORE tired now.

So, here’s what my last two blog posts neglected to mention: the first three days of lockdown I felt sick every day. I spent most of my time on Facebook and messaging apps, seeking reassurance in my friends’ absent presence – though sometimes I didn’t have the energy even to respond to them. The first ten days, I was sleeping 10-11 hours a night, and still feeling exhausted by mid-afternoon.

It took me over a week of lockdown to start feeling anything like normal – and I’m in New Zealand, a country where COVID-19 response has been much clearer and more comprehensible than almost anywhere.

I didn’t even start trying to achieve anything more useful than a load of laundry until day six. The first time I went to the supermarket to try to shop for an entire week’s supplies without forgetting anything (argh) while also staying minimum 2m away from everyone else, it took so much out of me that when I got back to my car I spent thirty minutes just sitting there behind the wheel before I could get myself back together enough to drive the five minutes home.

Then I got home and literally short-circuited my brain trying to figure out how to contain the possible invisible contaminants that might potentially be on any of the groceries I’d just brought into our house.

Our brains weren’t built for this

We’re living in a new world with new rules and new dangers. No one’s brain is wired to handle a pandemic, but there are a few ways in particular that this situation impacts on us ADHDs brains:

  • ADHD brains tend towards emotional hyperarousal – that is, we get emotional easily and intensely. I cry at death in animated movies – how do you think my emotions are doing with a real-life pandemic that’s killing thousands of people a day?
  • We also tend towards perfectionism, which makes many of us control freaks. COVID-19 is a danger that’s invisible and outside of our control, and that’s stressful as hell.
  • ADHD brains get switched on by adrenaline, so we can be great in a short-term crisis – but this crisis isn’t ending anytime soon. Having our brains operating on 150% for days and weeks on end just isn’t sustainable. We don’t have to be on the front-lines of coronavirus response to be exhausted by it right now.
  • And in case that all wasn’t bad enough, ADHD brains need routine. Even for those of us who aren’t facing the total life disruption of losing our jobs or being sick/having sick loved ones, our pre-coronavirus routines have been mostly tossed out a window as the world goes into lockdown – sensible and necessary as that is – and it’s only making it harder for us to deal with all the rest.

If you’re anything like me, you rely on a series of carefully-crafted routines and strategies in your daily lives just to achieve “normal”. Suddenly all our existing routines have been upturned, our priorities scattered, our sense of danger cranked up to eleven – is it any wonder we’re flailing?

Be kind to yourself: basic guidelines

So even as you work on crafting new routines and recalibrating your strategies, be kind to yourself. Let yourself sleep eleven hours a night if that’s what your body wants right now. Don’t judge your achievements now by how much you could achieve when the world made (more) sense. To quote a meme I inevitably can’t find right now, you’re not working from home – you’re trying to work while sheltering at home during a pandemic.

Your health – physical and mental – is more important than your work, your laundry, or that new hobby you feel like you should have so much time to finally get into so why the hell aren’t you?

You are more important.

Start with the basics: are you eating regularly? When I struggle with food prep (ugh – why do sandwiches have so many little steps to think about?), my fallback is a basic cheese on bread. It doesn’t have to be healthy, it certainly doesn’t have to be varied, it just has to be food in my face.

Do you have exercise you can do without leaving isolation? My latest “I hate exercise but I guess I don’t hate this so much” is dance aerobics – twenty minutes a morning of jumping around to a good beat until I’m drenched in sweat and no longer feel like I could just go back to bed (here’s the playlist I use, if it helps).

Are you hyperfocusing on news about COVID-19 until all you can feel is dread? Block that news app or website on whatever device you use to view it. If you can’t trust yourself to only unblock it once a day (and not first thing in the morning while you’re still in bed), ask a friend to let you know if anything happens that you need to know about, and stop looking altogether.

And speaking of friends, when was the last time you talked to (or messaged with) someone who cares about you? Reach out. Chances are good they’ll appreciate it too.

Start with whatever you need to work on in order to feel a bit more like you did before the world ended. Productivity can come later.

Be kind to yourself.


P.S. Here’s some advice made a big difference to my own wellbeing in the wake of the Great Grocery Crash: don’t wear yourself out trying to achieve 100% perfect infection control. As long as you’re following good guidelines around self-isolation, you’re already achieving a massive reduction in your exposure risk and that of the people around you. 100% is basically impossible, and you’ll only become a ball of stress trying, so remember that you are already making a huge difference just by staying home as much as you can and keeping your distance from people when you can’t.

Featured image by Foundry Co from Pixabay
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