A Holistic Approach to Isolation During a Pandemic, Cancer Treatment, and Life

As I sit down to write this it has been over six weeks since school districts closed, events were canceled, and businesses closed voluntarily in my state due to the COVID 19 pandemic. A couple of weeks into the voluntary closures the state officially shut down with a stay at home order, with the hope of limiting the spread of the virus. Early on I could see parallels between the social isolation during the pandemic, and the isolation that cancer patients experience during active treatment. I wrote a blog about this very thing last month! Whether you are isolated due to the pandemic, cancer, or some other life event, it is likely an ever evolving situation. I’ve got some tips for you to maintain your health holistically as you navigate these changes, or maybe refresh your routine. First, let’s take a look at isolation scenarios.

Are you in a groove, or are you feeling quarantine fatigue?

During the pandemic, although “we’re in this together” is all over the news and social media every person may be going through a different experience during this challenging time. There are the essential workers, who may be under extra stress and putting in more hours. There are people who have lost their jobs, and suddenly find themselves struggling to pay bills and purchase food. Then, of course, a whole spectrum of people in between. Some are home alone, and highly isolated, while others are spending more time with their immediate family as they work from home. Parents are helping their children learn, while teachers are forced to re-invent their curriculum. Some may be going stir crazy, some may have found their groove, while others may be in a constant state of overwhelm. The fact is, it’s been a big change for nearly everyone, it just may look different for each individual, and we may each have varied emotions about our current situation.

And then there was cancer.

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, their life is immediately turned upside down. Their finances may change, they may end up isolated at home for an extended period, and they typically experience a roller coaster of emotions throughout the treatment plan. (See the parallels here?!) The big difference between the pandemic and cancer is that when you are going through cancer treatment, “normal life” is going on around you. This can actually accentuate the feelings of isolation for the cancer patient if they are unable to participate in activities that their friends and family continue to do, particularly if they are single. The cancer patient may be receiving some support, but the camaraderie is on a smaller scale than with a pandemic.

Life, age and accidents happen.

Have you ever fallen and injured yourself, or had surgery, or maybe you have a chronic condition? Any of these can cause lengthy down time, which may also result in isolation. While an accident can create sudden financial and emotional stress, in many cases the duration of isolation is likely to to shorter. With planned surgeries or chronic conditions, there may be pain and extended periods of alone time, but there isn’t likely the immediate fear of facing mortality that occurs with cancer or a pandemic. Again, the experiences vary from person to person, but the same basic thread of emotions can surface.

What is the holistic approach to health?

When people talk about health, often the first thing that comes to mind is either food or exercise. Your health is about so much more! Looking at health holistically takes into consideration all aspects of a person’s life, such as our relationships, finances, spirituality, sleep habits, as well as food and exercise. During periods of isolation, no matter the reason, the change will likely effect ALL areas of your life, as they are inter-connected. When finances are impacted, for example, that can create stress, which can have an impact on the way we eat, sleep, our physical health, and our relationships. Even under normal circumstances, some areas of our life may be doing really well, while others may need some work to bring ourselves into balance.

Bringing your life into balance doesn’t mean you have to check every box every day. Rather, you incorporate small, sustainable changes into your day that put you on a path of improvement. During isolation of any kind, incorporating changes can be hard, but you CAN do it! When I was going through chemo I was told to eat whatever I wanted to eat, and occasionally a nurse suggested that I get outside and walk. I ate whatever was easy or convenient, and hardly moved around. I ended up gaining 25 pounds that summer. I slept a lot during that time and struggled with lack of social connection. Not caring for myself during that time is a regret of mine. The hindsight I have about my months of chemo has now allowed me to do things differently during the pandemic isolation.

Where do I begin?

First, identify where you want to make improvements in your life to create a healthier YOU. Choose just one or two things to start. It can be drinking more water, exercise, or connecting with a loved one. Then, once you’ve decided, don’t do anything…until that night. You see, I believe the healthiest of habits actually begins the night before, with sleep. Every person needs a different amount of sleep to feel their best, for me I know it’s 7-8 hours a night. I can get by on less, but I function better when I’ve had at least 7 hours of quality sleep. I have learned that after I get a good night’s rest, all of my decisions about my health that day are so much better than when I do not get good sleep. When I’m rested I rely less on caffeine and drink more water, I make better food choices, I have the energy to exercise, I’m more patient with my children, and overall, my brain functions better. While sleep cannot help pay the bills, it can help clear your mind and give you energy to take steps forward.

So, you see, it all begins at night, but then what? Once you recognize this and consider your situation and individual goals, it’s time to take action. Maybe you are isolated with others and need some alone time before the day begins. This, of course, means honoring a realistic bed time, so that you can get up and begin your day with reflection, or whatever feeds your soul. Maybe you are isolated alone, and you miss chatting with co-workers. Consider scheduling a video coffee date, or if you are going through cancer treatment, try joining an on-line community message board. Are you grazing on unhealthy food choices all day while home? Research healthy recipes and with a good night’s sleep you’ll have the energy to prepare nutritious food. Find yourself sitting too much? The internet is full of a variety of fitness videos for all levels. One quality decision, one step at a time, will lead you to another, giving you a little control within the uncertainty of any isolation.