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Why reclaiming your personal space might be the key to mentally surviving isolation

Whether you’re sharing a small apartment or working in an open-plan office, having your own sense of space is important. Here’s why, and how to create it.

Humans are generally social beings and need to be around other people, at least to some extent, or our energy can suffer. But even the biggest extrovert needs time and space to themselves and that can be hard to come by, especially at the moment.

“There are two types of personal space,” says neuroscientist and author of The Spaces Between Us Professor Michael Graziano. “Firstly, we each have a zone of space around us — a kind of buffer zone or margin of safety that we try to maintain with respect to others,” he explains.

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The volume of the space between us and other people often depends on our relationship — the smaller the space, the closer the relationship. “This kind of personal, protective space is present in humans and most other animals as part of the mechanism for avoiding predators. For social animals like people, it’s a fundamental part of how we organise our interactions.”

The second kind of personal space is “a part of the world that we think of as our own private space — that may be a part of a house, room, office or just the chance to spend time alone. That kind of space is definitely being challenged these days, as we’re having to spend more time inside with nowhere to go.”

Our personal spaces are very important

Even in a non-lockdown world, both our senses of personal space are constantly being challenged. From open-plan offices and apartment buildings with thin walls to people playing videos on the train with the volume on, our personal space is encroached upon in multiple ways every day — and that can increase a sense of stress.

A Swedish study into open-plan offices found that those who work in them are more prone to short bouts of sick leave than others, with women particularly affected. The researchers suggest it may be because our immune systems can be negatively impacted by stressors like lack of privacy and excess noise, which are common to open-plan layouts.

For psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Dan Auerbach, the potential stress of sharing spaces is further compounded by our hardwiring. “Humans are empathic beings — we ‘catch’ the moods and emotions of those around us,” he says. “And, if we can’t get away to prevent that from happening — or we can’t escape to recharge our batteries after it does — we can also find our own stress and anxiety levels rising.”

So if the words ‘crowded house’ are conjuring up more than thoughts of the Kiwi band for you of late — and all this living and working on top of each other is giving you a shorter fuse than usual — here’s how to reclaim some of your personal space, and use it wisely…

Negotiate your space

“I’d definitely recommend that people forced to stay together in a house all day, day after day, have a talk and negotiate private spaces in the house,” advises Prof Graziano. “This is my space, this is yours, and this is shared. That way, you have somewhere to retreat to and feel comfortable. Make it a rule that if someone is in ‘their’ space, they’re not to be disturbed.”

Make use of all senses

Think of how you can use your senses when creating a personal space for yourself.

If you respond well to scent for example, you can use an essential-oil diffuser to stimulate certain emotions and create the vibe you want to make your space work for you.

If you’re feeling stressed and need to create a sense of calm, look for either pure oils or blends of lavender, orange, patchouli, rose and bergamot.

For a pick-me-up, one study showed that vanilla can induce feelings of joy and relaxation, while jasmine may help with depression and citrus smells can energise you.

For a home-office space where you need more focus, scents including peppermint, rosemary, lemon, fennel, frankincense, sandalwood and cinnamon may help. Also on focus, a study by a Texas university showed that indoor plants help with productivity, creative performance and idea generation (which is one reason we’ve included buying plants in our positivity planner on page 11).

This segues into using your sense of sight to create some personal space if you’re feeling more claustrophobic than a need to retreat.

By bringing the outdoors in, you can recreate that sense of escape. One study found that people exposed to nature — even just watching a bubbling brook on a screensaver — felt more restored and rejuvenated.

Having a plant in your line of sight will serve the same purpose.

Behaviourist Anita van Rooyen suggests faking space via visualisation. “If you want to create a sense of space, then conjure up an image of the outside — a beach, forest or somewhere else you like to spend time — using all of your senses. If you’re trying to make a space for yourself somewhere more crowded, then imagine yourself in a force-field or bubble.”

Architect Esther Deutscher agrees that the senses are vital tools for making a space feel like a sanctuary. “Burning a candle of your favourite scent can help make a room feel more like your own space. Visually, it can help to allocate areas of the home for different activities — like a child’s craft area in one corner, your relaxation space in another — to create an illusion of boundaries. Conversely, opening blinds and curtains can create a feeling of connection with the outside world that opens things up.”

Create a cocoon

Once in your zone, block out external stimuli. The sights, noise and smells you take in from the outside, the easier it is to close yourself off and pretend you’re in your own bubble. One study found that people listening to happy music on headphones are actually more comfortable with people entering their personal space.

If you don’t want to listen to music, white noise can also help — but steer clear of detective shows or true-crime podcasts. Apparently, people’s need for space increases when they’re listening to conversations with aggressive content — even if they’re not involved in the argument.

Find your flow

You can also change the way you experience space mentally by finding something that creates ‘flow’, which is the psychological term for the state you enter when you’re doing something that totally absorbs you.

When you’re in this state, nothing penetrates the space you’re in — time disappears. You’ll look up and notice that an hour has passed, and you’ll have no idea where the time went. Whatever you do and wherever you do it, though, communication is key. “It’s really important right now to appreciate that we’re all different in how we deal with things.

Some of us like to avoid a situation, while others need to process it and talk and a conflict of styles can impact on your sense of space,” says Auerbach. “Understand what the others sharing your space may need and ask them to do the same with you. Realise that if one of you needs to escape to another room, it’s not a personal rejection — it’s just what’s needed right now.”

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.