5 Ways to Stay Sane During Quarantine: Lessons Learned from Prisoners in Solitary Confinement

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Photo by Bader K Albader

Really, prisoners? What could we possibly learn from prisoners?

I am not writing this post to debate the innocence or guilt of the prisoners referenced here but, instead, I choose to take the lessons they learned by spending days, weeks, months, years, and in some cases, decades in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is extreme and we are not really prisoners. Most of us will not ever experience what these prisoners have. Yet, this has not stopped some people from comparing their lives in quarantine to being some sort of a mental prison. Me being one of them.

Some of these men have had access to people, TVs and books. But, some had nothing but their minds to keep them company.

There is a reason solitary confinement drives people to insanity: so, here are a few lessons I learned while researching prisoners in solitary confinement.

1. Set a routine. If it works, great! If not, it’s ok. Try another one

The first thing Professor David Alexander, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, recommended for the incarcerated was to set a routine. How can something so simple change your life? Well, that is the power of routine. It gives structure to your world.

Small things, like making your bed and setting specific times to wake up and sleep, will improve your mental health.

Setting plans for the day allows you to stay in the present and to take things day by day. Like anything in life, nothing lasts forever — Not quarantine and not solitary confinement.

So get up, get dressed, and follow your routine. You never know. When this is all over, you just might discover a routine that works well for you.

2. Watch your health

A healthy body makes for a healthy mind. There are many studies and research out there that iterate this point. Staying active and eating a healthy diet will have a drastic impact on your mental health.

Charles Bronson, an ex-inmate and author of Solitary Fitness, spent 30 years in solitary confinement and still managed to stay fit. Equipment is not necessary. Just get moving. For those wanting to get in shape — this might be your time to shine.

Exercise does wonders. It releases feel-good endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body; it reduces stress, keeps you physically fit, mentally sharp, and acts as one hell-of-a distraction: even if just for 30 minutes.

Mustafa Zulu, an inmate who spent 20 years in solitary confinement, strongly emphasized watching what you eat. He thinks moderation is the solution. A pivotal mistake in dealing with stress is to feast on junk food.

Enjoy what you eat, but in moderation.

3. Take complete control of your space

Take control of your space and keep it as clean as possible, says Alexander. Your space is not just your room, office, etc. but also yourself. Alexander instructed prisoners to go as far as filing their nails until they are perfect. Luckily, we are not limited to our nails and have other distractions — it will not hurt to file your nails now and then, though.

Own your space. Designate an area for work, sleep, exercise, play, reading, eating, etc. This way, you will subconsciously associate a specific space with a particular task.

4. Become completely absorbed in something

Invite some of history’s greatest minds into your space by reading and then reading some more. You do not feel like reading? Draw, paint, write. Do anything that will remove you from your present moment. The thing about the arts is its power to drag you into it for hours.

It’s ok if you are not into the arts. You can exercise, form relationships (with animals and people alike), or teach someone something just as Albert Woodfox, 43 years in solitary, did. Woodfox found purpose by teaching other inmates to read and write during the hour he had outside his cell every day.

This is the idea of removal: completely removing yourself from the present moment of being surrounded by your four walls.

Almost everyone owns a TV, and there nothing wrong with that. Use your TV, but use it wisely.

When asked about the TV his Supermax prison provided, Mustafa Zulu says: “While there is something good to be found on TV, it’s mostly junk, and causes a shorter attention span.”

Sometimes, we just want to kill time. The content we consume from TV, whether beneficial or not, is extremely entertaining. What better way to kill time than to be entertained?

Just be careful, too much negative news could seriously disrupt your mood and increase anxiety.

5. Live in the present moment and plan for the future. I know, it’s hard

Long hours, day in and day out, it feels like it’s never going to end. We used to look forward to our weekends. Who even remembers it’s the weekend anymore, right? It’s easy to fall into a mental rabbit hole: be easy on yourself. Really, you are not alone. This is something we all share as a species.

Johnny Perez, an inmate who spent three years in solitary, recognized that using your imagination and letting your mind wander helps the time pass. You might have realized a theme here. Let your mind wander, but moderately and in a controlled manner.

The thing about human imagination — it’s powerful. Just as easily as it could help your mental sanity, if you let yourself go, it could destroy it.

Make plans for the future. What’s something you always wanted to do? Where’s a place you always wanted to visit? Plan these trips with your friends and family, and once this is over, make them happen.

We are fortunate to live in a time with technologies like phones and the Internet. Stay in touch with your friends and family. It will help the time pass and allow you to develop strong, lasting relationships.

I am sure some of you might be sick of the people you live with. Sometimes, I am. There are billions of people on the Internet you could interact with, either through a game, social media, forums, an online community on a hobby you’re interested in, you name it. Why not get on a dating website and find “lasting love” while you are it? You never know, you just might make a new friend.

Remember Zulu. He also believes that a refined and well-educated soul can harvest unlimited strength allowing anyone to endure the unthinkable. So, pray and meditate — strengthen your spirituality in whatever way you think is best.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not in a Supermax prison, but your mind can be one if you let it. Be easy on yourself and do the best you can with what you have right now.

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Sharing stories inspired by the world around me, my experiences, others experiences, and cultural taboos.

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