“My gears are particularly grinded right now,” says Michiko in a text after I ask her how she’s feeling amid the flurry of pandemic news related to COVID-19. It’s one of many texts, emails and messages I’ve sent to family and friends lately.
“I just don’t know,” she continues. “I am genuinely more worried about people back home in Europe than I am about myself in Japan. I get frustrated with so many updates and all the conflicting information.”
The new coronavirus has definitely made itself known physically, but it’s starting to be felt psychologically, too. While Japan has been grappling with measures meant to quell its spread — temporary school closures, teleworking and the cancellation of major events — instilling the habit of social distancing has proven trickier, which has left many onlookers in a state of disbelief.
There were attempts to cancel hanami (cherry blossom viewing), for example, with the authorities in major cities asking spring revelers to skip traditional picnics and drinking parties in favor of simply admiring the blossoms while on the go. This past long weekend, however, a fair amount of people ignored official requests and took their chances at smaller hanami parties. It’s a sign that while we may feel like we are supposed to be self-isolating at home, we still can’t suppress that need for in-person contact.
The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is an incubator for anxiety, according to TELL Lifeline Director Vickie Skorji. The Tokyo-based nonprofit has seen an increase of calls since the coronavirus outbreak took hold.
“We have people worried about their finances and jobs, and whether they can stay in the country,” she says via email. “People with mental health issues are also feeling increased stress, people are struggling with children at home in apartments and relationships are being strained.”
TELL has responded by posting information on its website about problems people might face during and after the pandemic, particularly with regard to disruptions at work and in relationships.
A sizable chunk of Japan’s population lives alone — 30 percent in 2015, according to census data, a rise from 25 percent in 1995. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has predicted that 40 percent of all households in Japan will be single-person by 2040. Given the numbers, those who have no work or have to work from home are faced with doing so in total seclusion during a potential lockdown, apart from communication via the internet. That is likely to take a toll on the mental health of the country’s residents.
In addition to that, many non-Japanese live alone owing to the type of employment they usually land. That includes those who are studying abroad, language teachers and blue-collar workers looking to set up a life in the hopes of bringing their families over, to name a few.
With all of these factors hitting us at once, we are bound to feel overwhelmed. In order to get a sense about how things may play out here in Japan, I got in touch with my brother, Ross, who is a sound engineer for the BBC and is currently living in a locked-down London.
“I didn’t imagine that pubs would be closed, or that bars and restaurants would be closed,” he says. “It’s proper weird.” In a parallel to Japan’s long weekend of unheeded hanami requests, he mentions that Londoners also flocked to city parks, drawn out of self-isolation by the sunny weather.
“If the government hasn’t banned it then they are still going to do it,” he says. Humans are social, after all, and if we don’t find things to do at home, the allure of sunny days may prove too tempting.
With that in mind, the following are some tips on spending time at home.
Use social media wisely
The nonstop nature of social media can be addictive and self-serving, particularly at a time when everybody is worried about one issue. The more time spent online, the more content is being pushed into your brain, causing your subconscious to get worked up into a state of stress. Cutting yourself off from the world and taking a complete break from the internet might not be achievable or sensible during a pandemic, but limiting time online — less time processing others’ anxieties alongside your own — will help.
And it’s not all negative. Social media, message boards and video-networking apps have proven to be crucial in keeping connected to family overseas, especially for those living alone. Also, don’t forget to keep up to date with the situation going on in the country you live in. The Japan Times and other news outlets have made much of their coronavirus-related content available for free during the pandemic; check your local coverage for things that are likely to impact you directly.
As always, it’s important to monitor a variety of sources in order to avoid hearsay and rumors as they simply add to the anxiety.
Binge-watch a series
No matter how upsetting things are around you, there is sometimes nothing better than a little escapism. Slip away to a different place for an hour or two and see how different you feel afterward. Get into an amazing series on a streaming platform (“The Crown,” “Schitt’s Creek” or “Sex Education,” or, my personal choice, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” —all have provided a welcome refuge). It might sound unproductive, but allowing your mind some off-world time can be calming.
The South Korean period drama/zombie apocalypse mash-up “Kingdom” may provide a fitting fantasy, and the 2011 film “Contagion” has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to its similarities to our current state of affairs. Some people listen to sad songs when they are heartbroken, I suppose for some people it’s just as cathartic to see a pandemic play out on screen.
Less escapist, and a great way to feel like you are part of a conversation without being in a roomful of people, is to listen to a podcast. NPR’s “Coronavirus Daily” provides a comprehensive look at our world at the moment, while BBC Radio 1’s “Life Hacks” March 20 edition deals specifically with mental well-being during this time of crisis. The meditation app Ten Percent Happier put out a podcast on March 13 that dealt with the same topic and introduced listeners to the basics of meditation.
Elsewhere on the BBC Sounds app (thankfully it can be accessed globally for free), BBC 3’s “Free Thinking” series offers bite-size discussions on a range of issues; educational and entertaining, it’s rarely dull. Another, very British podcast is “Off Menu,” in which comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster invite guests into an imaginary restaurant, complete with a genie waiter, to discuss their perfect meals. And, of course, The Japan Times offers “Deep Dive,” which looks into various aspects of life here in Japan.
A nicely curated music playlist is also a surefire way to lift the mood, but also check out the social accounts of your favorite musicians. Many of them are putting on free shows while they’re on lockdown.
The natural move
Self-isolating or working from home doesn’t have to mean not going outside. While a quick dash to your local convenience store seems like a break, getting outdoors and into nature will actually make a big difference to your state of mind. Go to a park, go for a run or take a riverside walk if you’re able. It’s springtime, after all, and trees are starting to bloom; hanami parties may be canceled, but you can still take a solo stroll among the blossoms yourself. Just don’t forget to wash your hands when you return home.
If for some reason things get worse in Japan and a lockdown is imposed, try to stay active if you can. This is where social media can be a big help; Instagram is currently seeing a push-up challenge making the rounds and YouTube is filled with plenty of trainers who have been on lockdown for some time and are posting home workouts to the site.
Stick to a routine
It’s easy to slide into a state of disarray when the everyday elements of your routine are taken away from you.
“People need to be educated in how to best respond, and how to put routines and structures back in their lives in an attempt to gain control and security again,” explains TELL’s Skorji.
Not having to go into work is fun for a day or two, but that novelty can quickly slip into a lax lifestyle that can feel depressing. Take a shower, brush your teeth, enjoy a cup of tea, put the washing on and get dressed. Open the curtains and let the sunlight in, your brain needs sunlight to wake up. When days are tough, lifting your head off the pillow can be a battle. If you are already in that mindset, then start with achieving one thing a day; get up and make your bed, the rest will follow. Just take things one day at a time.
Give your friends and family a call, send a Whatsapp message, swap stories, crack jokes about the lack of toilet roll. Chat about what is going on in your respective necks of the woods. There is nothing more normal than having a good conversation with a familiar voice, somebody that you know very well and who knows you.
A solution touted by my friends in Britain is a weekly FaceTime between them all; others have been setting up WhatsApp groups and holding parties on Zoom. Away from the silliness, it is important to reach out to your older relatives, those at more at risk and living alone. Quarantine doesn’t mean you can’t pick up the phone or send a message.
Above all, don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed by the current state of the world. It’s only natural that you might feel bouts of anxiety and boredom, just remember that you’re not the only one who feels this way.
For more information on how to cope with stress during the COVID-19 outbreak, please visit the TELL website at https://telljp.com/coping-with-a-pandemic or call the TELL Lifeline at 03-5774-0992, which operates from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.
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