For the past two months plus, I’ve been sharing a 1,000 square feet with three other people. Sure, I’m married to one and gave birth to two, but we’re lucky enough to have a couple of doors to close for privacy and as long as we’re all healthy, I really have no complaints. But, like so many with kids at home (or roommates), I miss the uninterrupted time I used to have to think clearly about work and process what’s happening in the world. Heck, I miss time to myself of any kind.
Charlynn Ruan, a clinical psychologist and the CEO of the Thrive Psychology Group in Los Angeles, CA says everyone needs a little time to themselves — even extroverts. “Being constantly surrounded by others can tax our brain and leave us feeling cranky, exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed,” says Ruan. “Our brain needs to filter out the majority of input it takes in during any given moment and focus on what is relevant to us.”
“Some time alone every day is definitely good for our mental health. We’re constantly influenced by the people around us. Their opinions and their actions affect us. Without any alone time, you could get caught up in the daily hustle and bustle while losing sight of the bigger picture. We risk losing sight of our own goals or values. It’s important to have some quiet time to think about your needs and the things that are important to you in life.”
Time to yourself also helps you process your thoughts and feelings. “When we are surrounded by people, we have more noise, more movement, more emotions and more situations that require our brain to filter and make decisions about what is important in that moment,” Ruan explains. “When this is ongoing, the system starts to overwhelm and we start to lose focus, struggle with decision making, and feel anxious. She says, silent spaces give our brains a break from filtering out sensory input, like your roommates dishes clanging or the strains of the music from Animal Crossing.
Solitude has many benefits
If you’ve been feeling edgy and snappy in quarantine with a crew, you aren’t alone — it’s just a sign you might need time alone. Morin says solitude builds mental strength, increases productivity, and sparks creativity. “Individuals who are comfortable being by themselves experience greater happiness and more life satisfaction. They’re also less likely to experience depression and are better at managing stress,” she says.
Kids benefit from alone time, too. “Although many parents think that kids are more likely to get in trouble when they have less to do, studies show kids who are comfortable being alone exhibit fewer behavioral problems,” says Morin.
5 ways carve out alone time in a full house
1. Establish some boundaries
Ruan says the first step to gaining more alone time is to have an open conversation about the different needs each person at home has, and how others can respect these needs. “Each person needs to express their needs for solitude before they start to resent the other people in the house who may be unwittingly violating their boundaries,” she says, adding that parents should be mindful of when they might be reaching “the point of overwhelm,” and give themselves a break. “Kids will respect when mommy needs a time-out,” she says. “They understand what it feels like to get overwhelmed by their reactions and emotions and it takes the shame off of them for also needing time to calm down.”
To help kids understand that boundary, Morin recommends giving them an activity to keep busy while setting a timer to give them an auditory cue that signals when your alone time is up. “Explain they should knock on your door or yell in the event of an emergency, but make it clear that being annoyed by your brother or wanting a refill on your snack isn’t an emergency,” she suggests.
2. Make a plan
Work with your housemates to establish a solo time schedule, while being flexible and communicative about changing needs. “As this quarantine drags on, needs change,” Ruan says. “Create an agreement with your housemates that all needs will be honored, needs can be changed and the default attitude will be grace and acceptance.”
3. Be an early bird
Morin says waking up before everyone else in the household is a great way to carve out a few extra minutes to yourself. “Drinking a cup of coffee in silence might be all you need to start your day out well,” she says. In roommate households, or homes with older children, Ruan also recommends taking advantage of differing sleep schedules to sneak in some solo time. “Encourage each person to figure out their most restorative alone time routine and start using this daily time when others in the house are asleep to have silence,” she says.
4. Parent in shifts
Coupled families with kids can carve out childcare shifts to give each other the alone time they need to get work done, or just regroup, suggests Ruan. “Couples who are used to spending weekends together as a family because they are at work all week might feel like this means they don't like spending time together, but in reality, they need this intentional time apart to make up for all the time apart they used to have going out into the world for work, errands and other activities we can't do right now,” she says.
5. Take a walk
Morin says spending time in nature by yourself can be especially good for mental health. Studies show walking in nature has a restorative effect on cortisol levels — cortisol is the hormone produced by stress. What’s more, Stanford University researchers found a 90 minute walk in nature might reduce rumination, or negative self-referential thought patterns associated with a heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.
When you finally get time some alone, drop your to-do lists and do something restorative instead, suggests Ruan. “Time alone can help you be more focused and less reactive, especially if you spend it on restorative activities like journaling, exercise, yoga or meditation. Resist the urge to use the time to clean or catch up on their to-do list and instead use this time as the self-care luxury it is,” she says.