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Katie Lee / Columbia Daily Spectator

During my last few years at Columbia, the times I regret most were those of self-isolation. There were moments when my anxieties felt too overwhelming and unimportant to voice out loud, especially if other humans were present. Most of these moments were followed by spontaneous overshares to the right humans, which made them feel much more manageable.

Now, self-isolation is a public health necessity. We’ve been pulled from our shared campus, where loneliness already seems to run rampant, which means that many of us are now physically alone. Confined to my basement bedroom, I’m faced with a choice between shifting to a physically-distant social life or complete social isolation.

I know it would be easy for me to hole up for the next few months: I ruminate, read the news every day, study incessantly, apply for jobs that won’t exist once the recession manifests completely, find a morbid hope in the fact that I’m applying for jobs in hospitals which might exist for all the wrong reasons, write bad poetry, and cry. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve done it before, without the excuse of a national pandemic. I’m sure I’m not the only one on this campus who funnels bad feelings into neurotic productivity.

So what are we to do when self-isolation literally saves lives? I am not attempting to minimize the effects that this national pandemic will have on the mental health of many people practicing social distancing. I am merely trying to bring awareness to the fact that feelings of loneliness and anxiety are often amplified when social support and resources are less available. For this reason, it’s important to resist habits that may further amplify these feelings. Stay connected to the people who inject your life with positivity, and try to practice love in ways that feel comfortable to you.

For the first few days of quarantine, I regressed into a cycle of bad habits. I didn’t want to call anyone, even though I was constantly obsessing over whether or not my friends (and their families) in high-risk areas were alright. I didn’t want to listen to the news with my family or discuss our strategy for social distancing, even though I would read every news notification that popped up on my phone. I made 50 to-do lists and crossed zero items off of each one.

I discovered anxiety as a motivating force more powerful than caffeine in high school, and have been willfully abusing it ever since. During stretches where I opted into self-isolation on campus, I began to feel that these anxiety-motivated study spirals were inevitable; I felt that by choosing to attend Columbia I had chosen to be smart rather than kind. This is an institution composed of overachieving, often anxious, extremely brilliant individuals. In the months B.C.E. (before coronavirus evacuation), I was just beginning to accept that, under all of those louder, distinctive traits, many of us can also be kind.

Columbia has taught me more than how to be endlessly productive. As a consequence of magnifying my anxiety, this campus and student body forced me to learn that trying to use my anxious productivity for isolating tasks only leads to panic attacks and a nonexistent sleep schedule. In my time on campus, I found that yes, my “anxiety brain” gives me a lot of energy, but that energy only functions well long-term when my actions are balanced. In order to escape the spirals that I seemed to love spinning down, I had learned to channel some of that energy into acts of love. I had to learn how to un-self-isolate at times when I felt that isolation was my only option.

Now that we’re all isolating, I’m grateful to have learned these lessons while social support was abundant and expressing love was easy. For your own sake, I urge you all to attempt practicing kindness from the safety of your homes. I know it isn’t easy when we’re so far apart, but that makes it all the more important.

For someone who writes incessantly, I’m not a words girl when it comes to affection, especially on virtual communication platforms. I like to squeeze the humans I love and do things for them (especially feed them). So, while I’m working on my FaceTime skills and verbal expressions of affection to fill the touch-starved void in my heart, I’m also figuring out ways to channel my time and energy into reproducing my favorite ways to express love. Instead of baking for my friends, I’ve made an Instagram account to catalog and comment on my baking adventures in quarantine. I’m hand-embroidering tiny presents while I binge Netflix to numb my brain.

It is becoming more apparent now than ever before that the independence Americans and Columbians pride ourselves on is, in fact, a myth. While we distance ourselves physically from the network of interdependence that links us, it is important to reinforce our social relationships. It is times like these that making the choice to express and enact love, in whichever way you may choose, is imperative to binding us together in strength, in solidarity, and in kindness.

Natalia Queenan is a senior in Barnard College, who is mourning the loss of hugging her friends goodbye much more deeply than commencement. She hopes everyone is staying safe, and of course, staying inside. She would love to hear from you, so send her an email at nsq2001@barnard.edu or send a recipe to her food Instagram (@kitchenqueen_an).

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

COVID-19 isolation social distancing anxiety love
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