Most of us have never before experienced enforced self-isolation and lockdown. What can we learn from people who have voluntarily gone into isolation for prolonged periods of time?

A group of people who self-isolate regularly are meditators, be it monks spending years in caves or laypersons going to silent retreats. Although there are big differences between meditation retreats and lockdowns, we can learn much from linking the two.

When people begin and end meditation retreats, they often have trouble adjusting. Many experience alienation from everyday life, and some struggle with their changed role or idea of self.1 Going into and out of isolation can create similar effects.

In my research with meditators, I learned that many report that not talking to others, having no eye-contact, and being on one’s mobile can be deeply unsettling. In turn, social life during the coronavirus lockdown varies from person to person, depending on if we live with somebody (and how our relationship is), if we are prepared to communicate online and by phone, or if we are more extrovert or introvert. Some people now have increased online contact with people from long ago or further away, while others feel disconnected and become depressed, anxious, and fearful. Sometimes we can make changes by reaching out to others and trying to connect virtually, at other times we might be able to change our mind-set and use our alone-time in a positive way, but sometimes we are stuck in sadness, fear and anxious insecurities.

Being alone and being lonely are two different things. This difference partly comes about by choice — whether we choose to be on our own or whether we are forced to be — and partly by how connected we feel with ourselves, with others, or with our tasks and passions.2

What is crucial during both self-isolation and meditation retreats, is how we deal with our emotions and thoughts. During meditation, when we become still and the busyness cedes, our emotions and thoughts rise to the surface. This can be difficult.

The pandemic fills many of us with anxiety, fear and insecurity about our health and our financial situation, and leads to grief over the loss of normalcy, of activities and of people. When these emotions become overwhelming, some develop problematic thoughts and habits, ranging from circling deeper into anxious or depressive thoughts to addictive behavior, getting lost in magical thinking, or obsessively cleaning their hands and surfaces.

Mental health advice often recommends meditation and mindfulness to learn to deal better with negative thoughts. These practices can help us to be more aware of what is happening and to respond skillfully, rather than reacting unconsciously. If we have learned to do this, it can help to give us stability in the face of adversity.

However, if we begin to practice while we experience difficulties, meditation is not always safe.3 Sudden memories of trauma can either induce a fight or flight mode, or make the mind go numb. Both reactions will not enable us to process and integrate what is going on and leave us feeling worse than before. If we want to work with difficult emotions and memories, the first step is to establish stability. Only when we remain in the “window of tolerance” between excess emotion and numbness are we properly aware and rational enough not to be carried away or avoid looking at what is going on. If you have a history of trauma or struggle with strong emotions, it can be necessary to be helped by a therapist or trauma-sensitive mindfulness teacher to be able to learn to meditate without provoking more difficulties.4 Therapists are currently preparing to offer more and more services online, and helplines such as Samaritans cannot offer therapy but at least an open ear to those who struggle.

My research shows that some life phases are better than others for working through our difficulties. Defenses are built for a reason: to protect us. If we are well, it makes sense to let go of them in order to heal and integrate all aspects of ourselves and become whole. Yet sometimes, going deeper into problematic thoughts and emotions can lead to more difficulties. This is particularly true if we are feeling unstable, alone or in a situation of uncertainty.3 In such cases, focusing on coping rather than healing as a first step is important. When therapists work with traumatized clients, the first step is to establish stability and a feeling of safety before looking back at past difficulties.5 If we are on our own without therapeutic help, we can increase stability by establishing healthy routines. Remember which activities make you feel good, keep your mind stimulated and let you stay as active as possible. The latter also helps us to be less “in our heads.” It will also counter the effects of sitting still, which have become apparent in my meditation research, such as changed appetite and sleep patterns, and sometimes, due to reduced stimulation of one’s senses, changed experiences of one’s body, of the self or the world around us.

The number of people who try meditation is currently increasing, judging by the spike in downloads of meditation apps.6 People not only have more time but research has shown that people feel drawn to meditation in times of change and crisis. Meditation can indeed help, but it is important to see if the time is right. Apps don’t offer the same support and help in times of distress that communities and teachers can and won’t help to avoid misunderstandings of concepts, techniques and ideas by providing context or adjusting meditation techniques.

My own research, as well as traditional Buddhist texts, show that some meditation practices are more dangerous than others; extreme developments amongst the practitioners I interviewed included meditation-induced psychoses, suicidality and other serious psychological difficulties.1 Amongst my sample, negative effects were most likely when practitioners meditate for very long times, or when they use certain techniques including intense breath work or work with energy movement in the body. These techniques often promise to have faster results in helping us to heal or awaken, but they also carry a high risk. Traditionally, these techniques were therefore kept secret until practitioners were advanced enough. But now we can find these techniques on YouTube without any warning about their dangers.

Some meditation blogs encourage practitioners to go on solitary retreats during the lockdown. This can be good if we have been practicing for a while, but it can also cut us off too much in a time when we need connection.

If you have psychological problems, meditation can be overwhelming or lead to misunderstandings of ideas; therefore, it can be useful to have a good teacher or therapeutic support.7 Never push or strive during meditation practice, as this is often causes people to develop problems. Practicing self-compassion is of utmost importance.

Also, research shows that meditating while we are upset can reinforce negative patterns.8 If meditation doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Some discomfort is normal, when we are getting used to sitting still and being with our thoughts and emotions — mindfulness has wrongly been sold as just making us relaxed or happy. However, when we meditate on our own and without support, we need to be careful about staying within our window of tolerance. Be aware of what is going on for you and tune into your body and mind. If you are in doubt, it will be better to get qualified support before you continue.

When meditators encounter problems, the strategy they reported in my research as the most helpful, is to ground themselves. This includes focusing on feeling the ground under one’s feet, using one’s body more, and connecting with others.

Grounding can also help non-meditating people during self-isolation. Ask yourself if you’re connected to the different parts of your body, to the world, and to others and try to find a way to balance the different areas: Use your body by exercising and working in your house and garden, use your mind by learning new skills or by being creative, don’t avoid feeling your emotions, and connect with people from different areas of your life.

Meditators work with awareness, insight and compassion. All three are crucial to our wellbeing, whether we are meditating or not: We need to stay aware and mindful of what we are doing and feeling, which will help us to appreciate the moment and to find joy in small things. We need to use insight and discernment in how we use media. We need to understand whether we are catastrophizing and generalizing rather than having a more differentiated view. And most importantly, we need to keep our heart open and be compassionate — not only to others, but also to ourselves. Let’s not beat ourselves up for feeling the way we do — instead, let us open our heart to all these hurting parts of ourselves and allow ourselves to grieve.

When we are able to do these things, our isolation can become a fruitful time. There lies a potential in this time of self-isolation that we could tap into: a chance for being more creative, for finding new ways to live or work, for settling into better habits, for clearing up our space, for connecting with people anew. Just like meditation retreats, isolation can mean times of difficulties as well as growth and happiness. Let’s be mindful, insightful and full of compassion for others and ourselves to avoid the pitfalls, keep us safe and to make the best of this time possible.