In Quarantine: An Opportunity to Create a Better Version of Yourself

I was dreaded with the thought of being in a room, in a new country for two weeks . . . now I think, it could have been worse,” is the response of an 18-year-old international student, safely tucked away in a downtown Toronto hotel room. I had just reached him by phone for a quarantine follow-up.

Worse in what way?”, I ask gently.

He says, “I thought, I would be placed in a hotel room, the ones you have in the middle of nowhere…between the airport and city or away from the city. This hotel is in the middle of a busy downtown. I feel, although I am alone in this room, I am not in the middle of a lonely place.”

I respond: “I am glad it is better than you expected. I appreciate your perspective.”

And I mean it, really and truly.

I am a clinical psychologist, who has worked in post-secondary mental health for more than 15 years. Like most of my mid-career colleagues, I tend to be more skeptical than hopeful. Somehow, his positive insight proves to be contagious.

My thinking is wavering. On the one hand, I wonder (as do my wife and two sons), “Why did I sign up for this gig?” Then I think, “If this young man can give up his pre-university freedom and fun, which he might have waited to experience for a long while, perhaps cheering freedom not available in his country, I can spare a few hours, from the safety and comfort of my loved ones’ company.”

Can we do anything to support you?”, I ask.

Respectfully, he responds, “I am ok, thanks for calling. Thanks for appreciating my perspective.

I have engaged in over 250 such brief chats with international students in the past three weeks. Most of these students are 18 years old, some older. A few are just 17 years old. They share in common a timeless tradition of entering not just university, but a new phase of adult development where their intellectual, interpersonal, physical, cultural and creative resources converge to propel their personal and professional discovery and growth.

Yet when they applied for admission, they would not have imagined beginning this journey of self-discovery and growth amidst a global pandemic. And one of the first live voices from their university asks them if they are free of COVID-19 symptoms. These students had just left the safe and comfortable confines of their homes, most have endured multiple and long flights over several time zones. A sizeable number of these international students were from USA. I did not anticipate my roaster would also have a number of American students. Instead of meeting peers with whom they will likely spend the next several years together and enjoying the hoopla of Frosh week, they are hurried from airport to hotel room, from where they will emerge after 14 days, barring virus symptoms. 

Before starting quarantine check-ins, I had prepared myself to hear frustrations, complaints, and accounts of boredom. I had anticipated meeting Millennials and Gen Z from diverse lands, most of whom have lived sheltered, structured and financially secure lives. I expected meeting social media savvy, multi-tasking, ambitious and anxious young minds who would be bored. I was prepared to explain the potential benefits of 14-day quarantine when precautions such as wearing of masks, daily testing, and restricted mobility could be as good as quarantine. I was expecting to meet young minds who were raised surfing on blazing speed highways of gigabyte traffic, with no signals nor stop signs, wanting to bring this same freedom into their physical space.

I was, however, surprised. less than five from 250+ students whom I have called up so far mentioned significant anxiety and boredom.  From research[1], I know that quarantined individuals—detached from in-person human contact – can become emotionally exhausted easily. Departure from routine living can easily sow seeds of uncertainty, indecision and feeling stigmatized. Any number of factors can germinate these seeds into weeds of anxiety and disorientation. These are not the outcomes we want for our international students, especially those beginning their post-secondary studies and having just landed in Canada for the first time. 

From my check-in, I found that most students seem to have taken the quarantine in stride. It might be they are providing socially desirable responses. Nonetheless, almost everyone I called appreciated receiving my call. My colleagues deserve a huge thanks for taking on this onerous task of checking up on more than 700 students, arriving from international locations, and following them daily for 14 days, with c. Depending on how many times one has to call to make the right call, additional calls one has to make to get to the right call, is

The relative calm among the students, I called, can be attributed to many factors. For example, clear information provided by the university about the incubation period of COVID-19 made a persuasive case for a 14-day quarantine. Clarity, without overly simplifying the course of a complex and contagious disease, also reduces fear and stigma. Perhaps more critical is post-quarantine debriefing and orientation. Given the evolving nature of COVID-19, key stakeholders synthesize public health information continuously and keep on communicating with international students clearly, effectively and in a timely manner.

We also need to be cognizant that some of these students may not share their genuine mental health concerns due to situational factors such as the need to get through quarantine, perceived burden in a new country, and lacking psychological mindedness to acknowledge, express and raising the concern to a critical threshold that necessitates seeking treatment.  Therefore,  it is also critical that the university proactively reaches out to students who may be vulnerable. Unfortunately, we have a rise in xenophobic incidents. Many of our international students come from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. We need to ensure that from the confines of quarantine, our international students do not feel alienated or stigmatized for who they are, as incidents of Xenophobia are on the rise. Xenophobic overtures looks or actions can make the post-quarantine transition challenging.

We don’t know when we will have a safe and effective vaccine, nor when it will be administered to most of us so that we can resume or recreate a new normal. Until then, we know that we are in this for the long haul. It is a marathon, not a sprint. To endure this marathon, we need to ensure that our international students continue to have a good understanding of the course of the disease, have practical tips and strategies to deal with post-quarantine adjustment, and are connected with networks of support (e.g., telephone support line, support groups). We can mitigate a number of potential stressors, but not all. Teaching students skills that cultivate and maintain their own well-being and resilience, through active, effective and culturally responsive strategies, will be key to preventing mental health problems in years to come.

During one of my calls, toward the end, a student asks me an unexpected question.

“Is there any good that I can expect from this quarantine?”

I am not prepared for this question. I think briefly before answering, then ask her the same question I asked as an international student, in the USA, two decades ago during a challenging encounter that changed my career trajectory in psychology, decisively.

I ask her, What are you good at?”

It takes her a short while, but she responds with attributes such as creativity, love of learning, perseverance and forgiveness.

I ask her, “Imagine yourself, on December 31st, 2020, if you could use your best attributes optimally, what kind of person would you like to be? Happier, more connected, more satisfied, more accomplished, more centred, more grateful . . . ?”

She says, “All of this sounds fine.. .but you’re missing something…. I would like to be more altruistic…more forgiving.

Why so?” I ask.

She says “I have heard many times, “we are all in this together”. It sounded cliched, ok, but after being in this room for more than a week, I have begun realizing that hundreds like me are in rooms around me. It made me realize that they are giving me an altruistic gift by being confined. I can certainly return this favour with a bit of kindness.

I invite students and those who support students to take a look at the following list of strengths-based actions students can implement during quarantine to explore, express and enhance their strengths.

85 Strengths-Based Actions: Creating a Better Version of Yourself  

Dear Student: We are sensitive to the fact that being in a room or a specific location for 14 days is not easy. Following is a list of strengths-based actions you can implement during quarantine to explore, express and enhance your strengths.  At the end of each action are hyperlinks to the specific strengths where you can explore these strengths more and even take a 15-minute online free test to discover your top five strengths. The test is available in more than 20 languages.

  1. Cultivate mindfulness. Try to remember to take a moment or two every hour or so during waking hours to notice your breathing, your surroundings, your physical and emotional experience. Be present in your body and in your environment. (curiosity, self-regulation, zest)
  2. Learn a few yoga poses, deepen your yoga practice, or engage in some simple exercise; share with your pod. (zest, teamwork, self-regulation)
  3. Ask others about their fears. Give reassurance, use touch, refrain from judgement. Help yourself and others cultivate calm acceptance. (social intelligence, kindness, hope, perspective)
  4. Leave a surprise and positive voice mail. (love, kindness)
  5. Snuggle up with someone special if you are lucky enough to be in physical connection with at least one loved one. Be grateful for their presence while you cuddle. (love, gratitude)
  6. Take at least a 30-minute break from the digital world and enjoy being quiet. Pay attention to the opportunity to cultivate joy in the ordinary; listen to specific noises that you would not listen to otherwise, no matter how ordinary these may be. (curiosity, zest, appreciation of beauty and excellence).
  7. Search and read at least one joke that makes you laugh. Share with a friend by connecting virtually. (humor, teamwork, kindness)
  8. Dance! Tune into your favourites online on YouTube or Facebook. (zest, leadership)
  9. Listen to music while you are engaged in a tedious or boring task like cleaning the room or folding your clothes. Notice if savoring the music helps make the task more pleasant. (appreciation of beauty and excellence, curiosity, perseverance)
  10. Check in virtually with your quarantine peers whom you may know or make friends with them to share your experience. (kindness, teamwork)
  11. Think up a project that will engage your and other’s interests and talents. You  can collaborate with your friend(s) online. (teamwork, leadership, gratitude)
  12. Make sure you walk around your room for 5-10 minutes, at least three times a day. (perseverance)
  13. Cultivate mindfulness when you are eating. Savor. Take your time, finishing each bite before taking the next bite. (self-regulation, gratitude, prudence)
  14. Challenge friends and family to make you laugh. Include children in this, if possible. Be generous about this! (humor, kindness, leadership, social intelligence)
  15. Practice compassion. At least once a day, set your intention to refrain from entertaining thoughts which could eventually harm others  (kindness, self-regulation)
  16. Create a group on social media devoted to finding quarantine appropriate ways which might reduce its negative impact. Be sure to include those who might also be in quarantine or self-isolation or are living alone during COVID-19. (leadership, kindness, teamwork, hope)
  17. Maintain your living space creatively, add one or two noticeable changes in your surroundings. (creativity, perseverance, teamwork, humility)
  18. Think about a significant life event that changed you. Write it down or tell it to a loved one over virtual connection. (honesty, perspective, love)
  19. Notice that you have two ears and only one mouth. Try to make use of this observation. When you connect with your loved ones virtually, try to listen twice as much as you speak. Reflect on what you heard, in solitude.  (social intelligence, perspective, self-regulation)
  20. Use social media to create an exchange of skills and resources to make the quarantine experience easier. (teamwork, kindness,leadership, social intelligence, fairness)
  21. Create a ritual of solace to handle uncertainty while you are in quarantine. This can be religious or spiritual. Invite loved ones to participate virtually. This is a terrific way to use virtual means to include friends and family. (spirituality, hope, creativity)
  22. Try to remember a favorite childhood memory. Share the memory with a friend or family member, or someone with whom you feel comfortable. (gratitude, appreciation of beauty and excellence, love)
  23. If you can take a peek at the sky at night, from your window, watch sunrise, sunset, clouds, sky before sunset, and stars; (appreciation of beauty and excellence, spirituality, zest)
  24. Rearrange a space in your home. (appreciation of beauty and excellence, creativity)
  25. Make a digital album or slideshow to celebrate a birthday or anniversary of your loved one. Share it online, if possible. (love, kindness, hope)
  26. Explore how people dealt with previous pandemics. Write three or more insights from their experiences which can still be relevant. (love of learning, hopecreativity).
  27. Make a gratitude list. Share it with loved ones virtually, especially if you are grateful for their presence in your life. Invite them to do the same virtually. (gratitude, love, social intelligence)
  28. Call or do a video chat with a friend. Ask them questions that will elicit the story of a special time in their life. Listen to the whole story without interrupting. (social intelligence, kindness, self-regulation)
  29. Work on a creative project. Use the internet (perhaps YouTube or Instagram) either to learn or to teach a skill. Involve a loved one, remotely, if you like. For example, have your friend or  partner take a video of you singing, drawing, or sharing your experiences. You can share it with your friends online to elicit their feedback. (love of learning, teamwork, creativity)
  30. Think of a friend, colleague, family member, or acquaintance who is alone. Send them a text or email, or call them to let them know you care. (love, kindness, social intelligence)
  31. Think up questions to ask loved ones (virtually) that you anticipate will be fun for them to answer. (kindness, curiosity, love)
  32. Think of this quarantine as your active attempt to take care of your own health and the health of your loved ones. (hope)
  33. Do something to make someone laugh or smile. (humor, kindness)
  34. Allow your loved ones to express themselves freely. Don’t judge. (kindness, social intelligence, judgement, self-regulation, fairness, prudence)
  35. Think of an activity that brought you joy when you were younger. Tell someone about it. Better still, if you are able, do it! (perspective, gratitude, hope)
  36. Reminisce your connection with nature. Recall pictures when you enjoyed nature during a visit to a park, picnic or vacation. Notice what impact this recall has on your mood.  (appreciation of beauty and excellence, perseverance)
  37. Use this quarantine opportunity to slow down, if you tend to move too fast! When you are reading, cleaning, typing, or browsing the web, be aware of your pace. Choose at least one activity daily that you do at a leisurely pace. ( prudence, self-regulation)
  38. Are you holding any grudges? Is there tension in any of your relationships due to misunderstanding or lack of communication, use this time to reflect and if possible, reach out and let it go. (forgiveness, kindness)
  39. In one of your virtual meetups, give your undivided attention to someone you love. This is a great opportunity to use video chat optimally. (love, self-regulation)
  40. Find a small way to give thanks to those who are working to maintain essential services. (gratitude, kindness)
  41. Reminisce about three places you’ve been that you’ve enjoyed. Share the memory by sending or showing someone a video or photo of those places. (gratitude, appreciation of beauty and excellence)
  42. Create a playlist of favorite songs or videos to share virtually with a partner or friend. (love, creativity, kindness)
  43. Try to be open-minded. Don’t criticize others. Instead, try to empathize and be compassionate. This is relevant both in person and via media, especially social media. (social intelligence, self-regulation, judgement, fairness, humility)
  44. Revive a lost or forgotten pragmatic craft, such as calligraphy, weaving, sewing, knitting, woodworking. Consider using it to contribute. For example, sew masks and donate them to health care workers. (creativity, love of learning, self-regulation)
  45. Watch or read about others who during a Pandemic have set an example of how to help others. (teamwork, kindness)
  46. Acknowledge the inevitability of living alone 24/7. Establish ground rules not to sweat about things over which you don’t have much control such as going out or complaining about staying physically isolated at the onset of your university life. (social intelligence, forgiveness, fairness, prudence)
  47. Practice restraint when you feel emotionally reactive, especially when you are urged by others to do something or feel in a specific way or you feel you are being lectured or patronized. Choose silence or mindful listening. (self-regulation, kindness, judgement, prudence, fairness)
  48. Recall and make a list of opportunities you could not or did not seize. The lost opportunity makes you sad. For each opportunity lost, try to find an unexpected opportunity that came your way. When one door closes, often another opens, at times unexpectedly.  (prudence, humility)
  49. Using an online app, watch a movie with your friends simultaneously. After the movie discuss your impressions  (love, appreciation of beauty and excellence)
  50. Watch and/or participate in a virtual concert. (appreciation of beauty and excellence, zest)
  51. Set your intention to be aware of frustration and use it as an opportunity to practice patience. (prudence, self-regulation, judgement)
  52. Ask your friends to find and share old pictures to make a collage focused on a theme such as high school sports, arts, or school celebrations. (creativity, appreciation of beauty and excellence)
  53. Set a goal to take exercise breaks throughout the day. Join an online exercise class or follow a YouTube channel to do five minutes of stretching or strength building (such as push-ups, planks, and squats) five or six times a day. Be mindful of your physical abilities.  (self-regulation, prudence)
  54. Work with a family member to create a collage depicting the life of each of your family members or loved ones. (love, perspective, creativity, kindness)
  55. Ask family members and friends how they survived other hard times in their lives. Explore what helped them through: what worked for them and what did they learn about themselves? (perspective, love of learning, curiosity)
  56. Honour and savour time alone and with loved ones. (gratitude, zest)
  57. Think about maximizing the opportunities inherent in this time. Get extra rest and take time to share with your friends. (honesty, creativity, gratitude, social intelligence, love)
  58. Interpersonal conflict is inevitable. If you have an ongoing and relatively small conflict with a family member or friend, try to be open-minded and open-hearted. Search for solutions with equanimity. (fairness, social intelligence, judgement, teamwork, perspective, forgiveness, humility, self-regulation)
  59. Learn how to talk to yourself using positive messages. Practice positive self-talk regularly. (self-regulation, love of learning)
  60. Embrace the opportunity for solitude. Take time to reflect on your behavior. Think about the implications of your actions. What modifications might be useful? (humility, prudence, perspective, judgement)
  61. Look at the ways you’ve been critical of yourself and others. Make a list of musts and shoulds that have held you back from making personal progress or collaborating well with others. (honesty, judgement, teamwork, humility)
  62. Play music from online resources and/or sing, alone or with others. (creativity, appreciation of beauty and excellence, teamwork)
  63. Play online board games or card games. (humor, teamwork, zest)
  64. Use your phone or tablet to remind you to do your mindfulness practice, do some deep breathing, and be aware of your posture throughout the day. (self-regulation, prudence)
  65. Develop a morning/afternoon coffee or tea ritual alone or with a partner (virtually), if time zone allows. Take turns to share or discuss a piece of art, building, literary work, or invention which inspires you or have had deep impact on you. (appreciation of beauty and excellence, love)
  66. Collect Watch the sunrise or enjoy nature, if not available from your room, please see a nature video and savour it. (appreciation of beauty and excellence, love)
  67. Write a letter of gratitude to an essential or health care worker, or  someone who is helping you during your quarantine. (gratitude, kindness)
  68. Participate in a spiritual ritual (alone or together virtually) to help you feel connected to a larger reality. (spirituality, teamwork, hope)
  69. Take an online exercise, yoga, or meditation class alone or with others. (self-regulation, zest, spirituality, love of learning)
  70. While talking to family and friends online, if you have a reactive moment (and you will), remember to pause for at least a full minute (or three good deep breaths) before you respond. (self-regulation, social intelligence)
  71. Reach out to a friend from marginalized or racialized background who is well versed in contemporary socio-cultural issues. Discuss some ways to collaborate in increasing racial and cultural harmony. (perspective, teamwork, fairness)
  72. Spend 20-30 minutes reading something that will broaden your perspective. Look for an online book, newspaper, blog, or magazine to widen your view of the world. (love of learning, perspective)
  73. Practice radical acceptance of negative thoughts and feelings. Resist the temptation to be discouraged by them. Search for meaning rather than blame. (humility, perseverance, perspective, hope)
  74. Assume good intentions on the part of others, including those who are different from you. Have an open heart and a compassionate view and don’t discriminate based on sex, race, ethnicity, or nationality. Set boundaries with firmness; don’t be mean. (fairness, kindness)
  75. Ask a loved one online to tell you how they are feeling; ask questions for clarification and to draw them out. Be compassionate and non-judgemental. Don’t interrupt or disrupt with your own agenda. (social intelligence,kindness, love, judgement)
  76. Use this time to learn a new skill. Read a do-it-yourself book or watch videos on the web for things you can do now that do not require additional equipment.  If there are skills you’ve always wanted to improve or master, this is the time! Whether it is graphic designing, learning a new language, computer programming, web designing, instructional resources abound on the internet. (love of learning, perseverance, teamwork)
  77. Direct your thoughts and energies to focus on others rather than on yourself. This will help you with fear and sense of isolation during quarantine. Remember that the reason we are in quarantine is to save lives. Consider the fact that by staying in this place, you are making an important contribution. (humility, bravery, teamwork)
  78. Rather than relying on your devices, memorize the phone numbers of your loved ones. (love of learning)
  79. Socialize with optimists via social media, phone or in a context where you can socially distance. (hope)
  80. Reflect on your strengths. Be honest with yourself about them. (honesty, gratitude, prudence)
  81. Ask for honest feedback from loved ones and/or colleagues about your capacity to listen, your integrity, and your communication skills (verbal and non-verbal). Heed their words. (social intelligence,honesty, teamwork, bravery)
  82. Practice the yoga pose savasana: Lie flat on your back, legs relaxed, arms by your sides, palms facing up and open, toes relaxed to the sides. Breathe deeply for five minutes. (self-regulation, prudence)
  83. Change a complaint into an opportunity for playfulness. Tell a joke. Don’t take yourself too seriously. (humor, self-regulation, humility)
  84. Try to find a way to surprise and delight your loved with a lighthearted gif or video. Look for the absurd, the goofy, and the silly. Fight despair with joy, fun, and love. (humor, kindness, teamwork, love)
  85. Reflect and set yourself three realistic, relevant and practical goals you would like to accomplish by December 31, 2020. Write them down. Also write down what you will do to meet them. Share your goals with a trusted friend. Encourage them to write the same and set 3 to 4 times for a check in to discuss progress and feedback. (self-regulation, teamwork, zest).

[1] Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912–920.