Coping in Isolation: The End and the Beginning

 The End and the Beginning 

By: Jessica Satya Graha

Edited by: Sophie He

When I look back at my senior year in high school, I remember the many hours of studying, the growing stress and the busy schedules to keep up with extra-curricular activities. Despite senior year being the most stressful year in high-school, it was also the most memorable. Our hard work was rewarded with the countless memories that were made. 

I remember the excitement of finally receiving our Year 12 jumpers with our 'cleverly thought-out' nicknames printed on the back. The ability to finally strut around the school with our jumpers and Year 12 badges to assert our dominance. I always cherished the simple moments of sitting on the lawn during lunch, huddled in a circle as we talked about our problems (which honestly now seem minuscule as we grow older). Dressing up on the last day of school, choreographing our Year 12 dance, singing chants and making our mark on the school. Now, we are able to look back at the countless photos taken with friends, family and teachers to appreciate one of the most pivotable years of our lives. 

But it's different for the first-year uni students of 2021 and 2022. They undoubtedly experienced the academic stress of Year 12, but unfortunately were not rewarded with the same experiences that made the senior year the same as previous generations. 

Many of these students have had either or both their senior year and first uni year in lockdown. The pandemic has sadly taken away from them many opportunities that initially I had taken for granted during my schooling years. They may have received their Year 12 jumpers - but could only wear them at home during periods of isolation. Instead of communal group lunches basking in the sun, they were isolated to their homes most likely eating lunch in silence as they scrolled through their social media feed to keep them company. Big events such as Formal, 'Muck Up Day', Graduation and Valedictory were either delayed, made into online events, limited in the number of participants or simply just cancelled. 

I asked my younger sister whether she was disappointed about not experiencing a Formal and she simply replied, 'well, I don't know what Formal is like... so I don't really know what I'm missing'. 

I don't know whether that is a good or bad thing. 

Isolation = ?Increased Productivity 

During an academically stressful time, some may see it as a benefit to be in lockdown. Staying at home = more time to study... right? I asked some first-year medical students on how they coped with isolation, loneliness and the slow transition back into the new norm.

Many students were able to see the benefits of the lockdown. It became a time to be productive and 'get on the grind'. Isolation meant less distractions which equated to the perfect environment for deep focus. 

'Although living in isolation is not super enjoyable, I academically thrived in loneliness. Living is isolation is a non-sustainable, but effective way of accomplishing tasks.' 

However, whether this was sustainable is a different matter. 

'Most of the time, I seldom equated my isolation with loneliness - whereby the beginnings of lockdowns became time to boost productivity. Yet as the lockdowns went on - seemingly without end or even an end date - I felt the loneliness seep in at times. Eventually these bouts of sadness morphed into the slow realisation of how cut off I felt from the rest of the world along with the growing distance between my support network and myself.'

During the lockdown period, many people felt the pressure of needing to make the most of their 'free time'. There was an itch to be productive, learn a new skill, a chance to excel in academic studies when in reality we forget what was really happening around us. A pandemic. We studied and worked from home and discovered that the boundaries between our work/academic lives began to blur with our personal lives. Our lunch breaks morphed into eating while studying. Our parents may have thought we were simply being lazy by staying in our rooms when in reality, we had full days of online classes. Teachers delayed assessments in hopes of waiting until we could return to in-person teaching when in reality, the easing of restrictions were nowhere in sight causing assessments to be crammed in one week, thus causing even more stress. 

The isolation may have created a boost of productivity in the beginning for many students who were fortunate to have a stable Wifi connection at home, a laptop or computer, adequate teaching material from school and a supportive home environment. Yet we often forget that there were many students who were not privileged with such optimal circumstances...

Isolation and mental health 

When asking first-year medical students about the effects of isolation on mental health, all of them suggested there was a strong correlation between the two concepts. 

'[During isolation], you don't really have many people to properly connect with to help you out with your problems. Often, just discussing with others can go a long way in helping your mental health, and loneliness takes away this coping mechanism.'

'Differentiating between feelings of loneliness and the comfort or peace of being alone - in my opinion, excessive loneliness can lead to the degradation of one's mental health. Personally, loneliness often functions as a catalyst for a downward spiral in my mental health - where the belief of "no one cares for me" leads to a refusal to seek for help or feel deserving of help. In turn, this usually exacerbates any type of unresolved emotional issues.'

As our social engagement was restricted, we were left to our own devices, surrounded by our own thoughts, engulfed by silence but also plagued by the constant chatter of our own voices. 

Transitioning out of lockdown

Most would think that after two years in lockdown, the transition back into the outside world would be exciting and greatly welcomed by the cohort who experienced their final years of high school in isolation. 

Some found the transition to be seamless and grew a greater appreciation for their friends. Many used their time in lockdown to plan social events and as soon as restrictions were eased, they didn't let time go to waste. 

On the other hand, some remained anxious as ‘you could never be sure if a lockdown was called on any day'. Even now, the fear of another wave of restrictions still somewhat looms over our day-to-day lives. The transition for some was 'emotionally quite draining and stressful. Throughout the lockdowns, I noticed I had become less connected with my friends due to centering my focus onto my studies. In turn, once I had come out of lockdown, I found that every social interaction became a little more draining than the next - especially with the weight of exams constantly at the back of my mind. Since studies were the only thing in my attention during lockdown, it was hard to let go of that once I came out of it.'

Having adapted to minimal social interactions with others, it is not a surprise that reconnecting with our friends and family then became more difficult. Our previous article [[The New Norm]] discussed the difficulties with transitioning into this post-pandemic world. 

Looking back on 2020 with 20:20 vision 

Retrospectively, our experiences have shaped who we are now. We will never know what the future holds for us, but we can certainly look back on 2020 in reflection. 

We asked first-year medical students what they would have said to their 2020 selves:

  • Keep going how you're going.

  • When it gets challenging, be grateful for all the little moments you had with each other as that’s what will get your through.

  • Do yourself a favour and disassociate yourself from people who are not worth your time. 

  • Prioritise yourself more than your studies, and although they seem like the most important thing in the universe, lockdowns are trying, isolating, and puts your mind in a kind of limbo state where you don't know when they are going to end. So being able to adapt to these states with a healthy mind is the best thing you can do for yourself.

  •  Enjoy it

What would you say to yourself in 2020?