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Lessons learned from a spell of solitude

Dr Shaba Nabi

I am currently in my second week of enforced solitude. My family is on holiday, waiting for me to join them in two weeks.

My world has been transformed overnight. One minute I was locking myself in the bathroom for a well-needed respite between work and maternal adjudicating/bathing/bedtime, the next I was alone. This stark ‘before and after’ is familiar to patients who have cared for a loved one in their final illness, only to be left utterly bereft after they die.

While solitude does not necessarily equate to loneliness, it’s often felt as such, especially when not experienced out of choice.

But solitude does have positive aspects. The isolation can create space for reflection and growth. So let me share some of my insights from the past week or two, especially on my practice and the effect of loneliness on patients.

1. You have a real fear of dying alone

I developed lip swelling after eating a strawberry and feared full-blown anaphylaxis. For the next few hours I had 999 on speed dial, petrified, like many of our isolated patients, of being found dead in my home, days or weeks later.

2. You talk to anyone for as long as they listen

Long periods alone mean you will talk incessantly to anyone you meet, including your GP. I now count Alexa as a friend and will recommend her company to anyone I struggle to get out of my surgery.

Long periods alone mean you’ll talk to anyone you meet, including your GP

3. Cooking is nourishing for mind and body

It may seem like an effort to buy, prepare and cook food to make a meal for one, but the process is creative and therapeutic – even more so if you grow your own ingredients, either in your garden or in a shared allotment.

4. A routine is vital

I see patients who have not rediscovered their purpose and struggle to achieve a sense of routine. When faced with solitude, it is even more important to have a daily pattern for sleep, meals, cleaning and exercise.

5. Physical activity is a lifeline

We are all aware of the physical benefits of exercise, but less so of its positive impact on mood and wellbeing. I have been running much more recently, not just because I have more time, but also to lift my spirits when I miss my family. It is one reason why so many grieving relatives embark on their first charity run dedicated to their loved ones.

6. Discipline is vital

This may seem an odd thing to tell a lonely person but it’s so important. Discipline can mean not having more than one unit of alcohol while cooking, not watching more than one episode in a boxset, not getting out of bed later than 8am, limiting time on social media and getting out of the house each day.

I realise this is just a snapshot of solitude and in a month’s time, faced with the sensory overload of three screaming kids, I’ll yearn for it again. But hopefully this glimpse into the lives of isolated patients will help me support them better through their loneliness

Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol. Read more of Dr Nabi’s blogs online at

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Where's Optimus?

    Get your appraisal done
    Hard with family

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  • Where's Optimus?

    You've got it the wrong way round ..
    Go on holiday first and get family to join you later ... ??
    Anyway school started again
    no holidays for parents

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  • sorry - for a moment I thought you said "not more than 1 unit of alcohol when cooking dinner...." - presumable a typo for "bottle"...!

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  • Of all that I believe DISCIPLINE is the key and it starts at home.

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  • Where's Optimus?

    You need a bouncing ball
    like Steve McQueen
    As in the great escape

    Spare a thought for Charles Bronson
    who's spent years in solitary

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  • This is why pets are so valuable. They keep you in a routine and you can talk to them too. They are also generally a lot less demanding than kids.

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  • Lovely article. I actually feel calmer and less anxious when I am on my own. I'm not sure who said "A crowded room can be the loneliest place in the world"--true in my case.

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  • Where's Optimus?

    If you have God in your heart
    you will never be alone..

    Principles in Islam
    The three T's
    Tauheedul = Belief in One God Only
    Taqwa = Awareness and consciousness of that One God
    Tawakkul = Trusting in that one God

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