Sanctuary or solitary: Keeping your sanity while stuck at home

Home. The word means a safe and comfortable sanctuary to return to after a busy day. But with the novel coronavirus on the march across the country and most people under orders to stay home to slow its spread, the word now feels more like a four-letter word meaning imprisonment.

With this situation unlikely to change anytime soon, how can we make our homes feel more like a sanctuary again, and keep our sanity?

“Everything is becoming blurred. If you notice yourself not getting that sense of ‘I just ended my day, I’ve done my work for the day, I’ve packed it up,’ it’s probably a great time to signal to yourself that you want to reclaim some of that sanctuary of the home,” says Ann Park, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety, depression, and stress management.

She points out that part of the difficulty is that no one knows when the current situation will end, as things keep changing week by week. So while we’re in this limbo, Park offers up some tips to manage the stress of a life lived indoors.


Keep separate spaces sacred

Prior to the past month, a small percentage of people worked from home full time. But that number has ballooned over the past few weeks, which has served to blur the lines between workspace and living space.

“The two areas in which we struggle now that we’re all home is the geographical demarcation as well as the time demarcation,” Park says. In other words, you end up doing work on the couch while watching TV as well as at your desk, and at all hours of the day and evening.

She suggests carving out a space, of any size, that is solely for work or school and then closing off that space, mentally and physically (if possible), when we’re not working or studying.

“Even in a small space, we can designate a work zone,” Park says. “It doesn’t have to be a room or a specific table, but a zone, a marker to oneself that when I have my laptop open, that means I’m in work mode. When I have my laptop closed, I’m off.”

Conversely, make sure to set up a work-free zone where you can kick back.

“We need to be more intentional about allowing for there to be parts of our home that are still an oasis, that still are soothing and relaxing to us even though we have to probably take up more of that space at home to work in,” Park says.


Create a schedule

A basic schedule goes a long way toward dividing the home into a space for work and relaxation.

“You might draw up a schedule ahead of time and say, ‘OK, from 9 to 11 every day is work zone. Or from 5 to 6 every day, I’m going outside to take a walk or I am closing work things down and I’m going to have a cup of tea,’ so we might make those designations quite concrete,” Park suggests.

Each person in the house should have their own schedule.

“Creating a realistic cap on the day for ourselves is helpful because it announces an end to the day when the whole space turns back into home space, like when Cinderella’s carriage turns back into a pumpkin,” Park explains.


Dress the part

In addition to a schedule, there are other ways to signal to your brain that you’re shifting gear — by changing clothes, for example. Although the idea of wearing pajamas all day sounds really appealing at first, donning “real” clothes for work can clarify the fuzzy line between work and home.

“When I’m in work mode, I’m in this outfit or dressed in a certain way, and when I switch off work mode, I might change into something more casual,” Park suggests. “I might demarcate the transition by going out for a walk, and when I come back that means I have turned off my work mode for the day and now I am in rest mode.”


Take care of your space and yourself

The desire to keep your home clean and virus-free can make it seem more sterile and less like a comfortable space. And you can wear yourself out trying to keep it that way.

“Each of us has our own personal threshold of what we’re able and willing to do, and I think if you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the number of things you need to do to keep yourself safe, it’s worthwhile to maybe write down the top two or three things that you think you really can do,” Park suggests.

You can’t control every single element of your sanctuary, so narrow your focus to the tasks that truly make a difference. Make sure your home is comfortable and your high-touch surfaces are clean, but don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t get to every single household chore.


Cut yourself some slack

Transforming a home into a multipurpose space (office, gym, school) is difficult, and no one really planned for it. We’re all meeting the challenge differently.

“The important thing is, we should be intentional, otherwise that home space can begin to feel claustrophobic,” Park warns. “It can begin to feel like there’s nothing going on here but work and school and worrying. It should have all those functions, but it also should function as a home is supposed to, which is rest and refuge and oasis and calm.”