Sheltering in place: Social-emotional health

In 2013-14, I spent nine months in the provincial capital of Latacunga, Ecuador on a Fulbright grant. Social-cultural norms meant that daily life had a lot in common with today’s “shelter in place” mandates. Here I share what I learned, and how to best embrace this “new normal.”

For FAQs on why I chose this lifestyle, please see part 1.

Part II: Social-Emotional Health 

Once I committed to adapting my social life, I took a page out of the Ecuadorians’ book and prioritized:

  1. family
  2. close friends
  3. work
  4. housekeeping
  5. side hustles

We US Americans are always complaining about how we don’t have enough time to do one or more of the above things. I recommend starting here, with your true priorities, and dedicating your time and energy to those instead of scrolling through the news.

If you ask an Ecuadorian why they do anything—work, school, whatever—they will rarely say they do it for themselves. They usually said they were motivated to produce money for their family and public works for their community, tangible or otherwise.


In Latacunga, I called my mom and dad at least once a week. We could only talk on Viber over Wifi, so I had to be in my house. I told them what was going on at the university, planned for my dad to visit me, I shared what I was learning. If I missed these weekly calls due to a trip, I felt really lost and unmoored.

Tip – beginner: if you can— CALL YOUR MOM. Or Dad, or sister, or cousin. You probably have a lot to talk about.

Intermediate: Bring an agenda so you don’t just wax catastrophic about coronavirus. Decide to watch a movie or a show together, and talk about that instead! Maybe now’s the time to teach your Boomer relatives how to actually use Facebook. Or identify fake news. Or download a podcast. You probably have something valuable to share, and vice versa.

Advanced: If you’re feeling especially ballsy, you can even try to mend a broken relationship. You may find yourself with the time and emotional bandwidth to process some misunderstandings, so a delicately worded email or text could set your feet on the path to healing.

Time commitment: 1-2 hours, at least weekly. Try every 2-3 days!

Close Friends

For a lot of folks, “found family” is just as, or even more important than biological family. I leaned heavily on found family while in Latacunga, located both in Ecuador and in far-off countries. There was a lot of information coming in and I needed a “philosopher buddy” to bounce ideas off of and help process.

I spent hours and hours, sometimes daily, discussing politics, cultural differences, historical research topics, everything under the sun with people I knew I liked, but never really had the time or space to pursue a full friendship with. They are some of my closest friends now. We exchanged writing, critiqued each other’s novels, talked about 16th century religion, developed theories of gender and religion and the Renaissance on three continents. We had our own little virtual salon!

Tip – beginner: Call, facetime, or start texting again with good friends you’ve lost touch with, or just barely get to see because you’re both so busy! Chat while you make dinner or clean up the house.

Tip – intermediate: Reach out to a college friend or old classmate or someone you met with a shared hobby. Catch up on whatever you had in common, see what they’re up to.

Tip – Advanced: Join or set up a discord server and invite whoever you think would like it! Or set up a virtual event just for your friends. (Super advanced people already know how to make Reddit friends, or use Patreon Discords to find connections.)

Time commitment: 4-7 hours a week. Really, people wanna TALK about things, especially when they’ve got nowhere to be!


As a university teacher, I needed to plan classes and grade papers. This definitely ate a bunch of time, but I also had the time and space to come up with new and better ways to communicate and run a classroom.

I also was able to do some soul-searching about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wouldn’t stay in Ecuador forever, and that I’d eventually come back to the States, so I planned out a few viable career paths for when I got back.


If you can work remote: now’s the time to figure out new and better ways to do things, since your boss can’t breathe down your neck or micromanage you. Even if that’s not useful at your current job, I guarantee it will be useful in the future. Really, I promise, cross my heart. Companies are starved for people who can think critically and optimize workflows with a human touch. They might not admit it, but it’s very real.

If you can’t work remote and still have to work: God bless your doctor / CTA driver / other critical infrastructure / other job situation soul. I’m not gonna pretend to have good work tips for you outside of general stress management, so scroll down!

If you can’t work remote or at all, and/or are on the job market:

NOW is the time to polish the heck out of your resume. Take that online course. Apply for grants and scholarships. Research that Dream Job You Think About while dealing with crappy clients or patrons. Sketch out a plan for how to get it. Make your LinkedIn shine. Dig through the free MIT courses and take one fun course, and one “pragmatic” course.

NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK online! All those professionals in your dream industry? They’re at home trying to stay busy too! They may actually have time to mentor and build their own networks too. Request an informational interview virtually. Make a professional twitter and follow the topics and careers you’re interested in, now and in 10 years.

It’s hard to stay disciplined with this stuff, and I personally get really exhausted and dejected quickly.  I recommend an actual rewards system for time spent. For example:

1 hour of Future Job Research = you get to make another cup of coffee

You fix your resume —> you get to binge Netflix the rest of the day

Set a social call for a specific time of the day  —> you only do job research and don’t go on twitter until then

Time commitment: ~1 hr per day.

(Obviously comes after you deal with the unemployment & COBRA stuff)


We’re all spending a lot more time in our houses. It’s important to make the space healthy, stimulating, and relaxing to occupy.

One of my most therapeutic house activities in Ecuador was doing my laundry by hand. In a big cement washtub with a bar of detergent. Yes, it was cold as heck and physically exhausting. I could have gone to a laundromat but I was determined to try out as much of Latacungueno life as possible. 

I loved doing my laundry. It was a full body workout. You had to do it in full sun, otherwise it was too cold on my little wash patio. It was 3-4 hours of hand-roughening scrubbing, and my clothes never felt so clean or smelled so good. I also felt like I earned my own cleanliness, that I was more responsible for it. I’d put on Spotify or NPR and vibe every Saturday morning.

Today, I still do an iteration of this when I can cram it in: I put on a podcast and clean the bathroom, or vacuum, or scrub out the fridge.

Cleaning your own space is really empowering. Not only do you get to look at the finished product like a trophy you earned, but it helps your brain process information by moving your hands.

Tip for everyone: While you shelter in place, I also recommend delineating spaces inside your own house. Yes, you also can do this in your 700 ft studio. For example:

  • Designated Work Space. I work at my desk in my Desk Chair. When I log off from work, I shut down my computer, put it in my work backpack, and hide it in the closet until tomorrow’s login time. I also still Get Dressed for Work. Nothing fancy, but I do wear my Nice Jeans and occasionally my blazer. When I logoff, I take it all off and put on sweatpants. Pajamas are for Netflix and sleeping, nothing more. 
  • Designated Hangout Space, the couch.
  • Designated Recreation & Social Space, the kitchen table.
  • Most importantly, designated space where you NEVER work in. For me it’s bedrooms. Life & work when you’re dealing with all this stress will inevitably worm its way inside your house. It’s important to have a “safe space”–even from yourself. (And Twitter, let’s be real).

Side Hustles

The most centering thing I did while in Latacunga was keep my culture blog (warning–it’s SUPER dated). It was series of observations and thinkpieces about what I was learning from Ecuadorians—about their own cultures, and about my own.  I have a lot of big ideas that I prefer to communicate in essay format, so I spent a ton of time on it. I could spend up to three weekends on a single blog post. While I still worked on my fiction, I honestly spent most hours on the blog, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

I also microblogged using Facebook, sharing quips and anecdotes that struck me as funny or significant. These were unexpectedly popular just with my Facebook network, and wound up earning me a niche following for people interested in travel, history, and Latin America-US cultural relationships. 

What I’m saying is: if you’ve always wanted to launch an online personal brand, now is the time! Everyone is at home staring at their phone, craving content. Have something to say? SAY IT! Want to learn to do something as a hobby, or as a side hustle? DO IT! You have YouTube, infinite hours, and literally nothing better to do. Learn to videoblog. Learn to use Photoshop. Make an iMovie for your parents of old photos (parents love that). Someone give you a carpentry book because you said you wanted to be like Nick Offerman and you never opened it? Go pick it up off the shelf and read it!

The critical part of a hobby or a side hustle is that it has to fully engage your brain for hours and hours. It’s different from binging Netflix in that your brain has to actively generate ideas, content, and solutions. With the Internet we are out of the habit, but this is a great time to rebuild that skill set.

I promise, dedicating hours to A Project, literally Any Project, REALLY HELPS. Humans are happy when we’re building things, for ourselves and for each other.

Tip for everyone: Dedicate one hour a day to finding or starting a true hobby or side hustle. It’s okay to give up or decide you hate it—you’re not getting graded here—but try, for at least 3 hours per week, one single thing. After the pandemic passes, it will be super helpful to have a passion outside of work and life’s craziness.

Have trouble focusing? I recommend Pomodoro timers. I especially like that you can track how many hours you spend on a specific thing—makes me feel productive even if I haven’t accomplished anything after 3-4 hours!

See Part 3 for Physical Health. 

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