long term lessons to learn from New York City

Aussie expat Stephanie Nuzzo has learnt a thing or two while self-isolating in New York City for a month. She explains the real dangers of “compassion fatigue” and how we should all be looking after our mental health, with the long term in mind. 

I straightened my hair this morning. I woke up at a semi-reasonable hour; put on jeans and a clean sweater; slapped on some concealer and straightened my tangled web of hair.

This seemingly mundane piece of information is important because in the four weeks I’ve been self-quarantining in New York, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve put this much effort into my appearance. I think it might be four. Spending the better part of a month inside your apartment will do that to you. Your definition of ‘presentable’ will shift. And you might start spending longer than you’d like to admit wearing pyjamas in your living room.

The COVID-19 crisis is a beast no one quite knows how to handle. It’s been a swirling storm of misinformation, shock, danger and grief. And here in New York, which now has more cases than every other *country* impacted by the virus, the jump from mild concern to catastrophe was so fast I still can’t comprehend how we got here.

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Engage in the little things

In any case, here we stand; four weeks into self-isolation, with a hell of a long journey ahead. It sounds depressing because, well… it is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that help.

As it turns out, living in what feels like a post-apocalyptic world teaches you a few things. And while I’m certainly no mental health expert (though I strongly suggest chatting to one, online, if you have the means), I am a few weeks ahead of Australia in the self-isolation game, so I can offer a little insight.

Like how opening a window can be a self-care act. Fresh air and sunshine have been two of my biggest mood-boosters. I dread rainy days. Or how getting dressed helps me feel less sluggish. Like there’s purpose to my day. Whether I squeeze into a pair of Levi’s or my activewear is another matter entirely, but the point is: get dressed.

Oh, and you should forget about your list of ‘quarantine goals’. I had intentions to learn Spanish and master folding a fitted sheet, but those projects died quickly. Some days I’m productive, others I’ll spend an hour crying on my bed, and it’ll be the best possible use of my time.

Don’t forget to talk to your friends and family

The biggest lesson I’ve taken from quarantine, however, is that communication is everything. How you do, or do not, interact with people will have a considerable impact on your time in isolation.

Personally, I was craving feelings of connection almost right away – particularly with friends and family in Australia. It’s painful for me to sit through this pandemic on the other side of the world from the people I love. So, I started reaching out more; calling regularly; writing letters to my grandparents; asking people to send me silly anecdotes over Instagram.

And it helped. Laughing over regular life stories and gossiping about the Tiger King made me feel normal. Australia felt closer.

According to Lysn psychologist Breanna Jayne Sada, my experience is pretty universal: “Feeling connected is always important for humans,” she said. She stressed that being social and feeling supported has a large impact on mental health. It’s probably the most uplifting tool we have right now – in my opinion, at least.

But there’s a line to watch.

Be wary of “compassion fatigue”

About two weeks into isolation, I hit a wall. I answered one too many calls; listened to one too many rants; had one too many arguments. And it wiped me out. Sada referred to this as “compassion fatigue”. She shared that it occurs when you’ve reached your threshold of “heightened feelings of empathy and compassion”. Or in other words: you try to be all things to all people and exhaust yourself in the process.

I spent about 48 hours in a funk where I hardly spoke to anyone. I simply didn’t have the energy. It was only after setting some boundaries and taking a solid time-out that I felt able to return to engaging with my people (slowly). After all, you can’t help anyone if you’re struggling yourself. Especially not now, when we’re all psychologically spent.

So, if you’re looking for ways to get through iso with a little more ease, all I can tell you is this: Things will change quickly; allow yourself time to process. Small acts like standing in the sun or washing your face can improve your mood. If you’re able to find a routine, great, if not, cut yourself some slack.

You don’t have to write a novel or achieve a six-pack right now. Put effort into the relationships that build you up, but prioritise your mental health first. And treat yourself and others gently. The only way through this is with time, patience and a whole lot of care.

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.