Spending more time with family or roommates is one of the most wonderful things to come out of sheltering during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also one of the most difficult. The truth is, togetherness is terrific until you want to be alone. Before the pandemic, I’d decamp to a coffee shop down the street when I needed a break from all the Lego-rummaging, Cheetos-crunching and question-asking at home. But now that those old hiding places often feel more stressful than sedate, the only option is to carve out your own escape pod.
“The value of creating a private oasis is mental refreshment,” said Sally Augustin, Ph.D, an environmental psychologist and founder of the design firm Design With Science. “It’s an opportunity for reflection.” So if you think about escaping as a way to give your mind some time to reset, rather than seeking out a new physical space, you can find respite without going outside — even if it’s a chair turned just so, a big pillow on a rug in the corner, or a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
It’s all a matter of personal preference, and only a few principles generally apply. It’s also something that can be done affordably. “What’s essential is anything that sparks joy and anything that’s not distracting,” said Nia Lawrence, creative director at Brooklyn-based Essence Communications. “All you need is the tiniest corner.”
Here are seven strategies for creating your own oasis, no matter how small your space.
Find Forgotten Space
“The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we use space,” said Malachi Connolly, an architect and owner of Brooklyn-based Malachi Connolly Design. Think of restaurants using alleys as dining areas, or schools creating classrooms in courtyards. “Space has become democratized, and interstitial space can become primary space.”
You may discover these underused spots in your home, too — maybe in a foyer or even a laundry room. Leslie Barrett, an architect, interior designer and partner at Studio Sucio in Los Angeles, created a nook in her bedroom by improvising a table with a marble slab and setting it, with a chair, between her window and dresser. “Before that,” she said, “it was just floor.”
Like those side-street cafe tables, a home sanctuary can be set up and taken down ad hoc. If you have modular furniture, break from the expected arrangements, said Barry Reidy, country interior design manager at Ikea U.S. A modular sectional sofa can be separated into individual chairs, with the arms in the center instead of at the ends, creating more personal space. A modular dining table can be separated and pushed to the sides of the room after meals to make a one-person escape pod, as Mr. Connolly said he has done in his home.
Anything Can Be a Boundary
Room dividers, bookcases or house plants are some obvious ways to cordon off a private space. But simply sitting in a high-backed chair can offer a cocoon-like experience for winding down and disconnecting. Humans like having their backs “protected” in order to relax, Dr. Augustin said, noting that it speaks to our innate preference for avoiding surprises from behind, whether it’s a hungry predator (in prehistoric days), mischievous felines or sneaky toddlers.
Ms. Barrett keeps a rattan peacock chair, high-backed and throne-like, in her open living space. Even more substantial would be a porter’s chair, which has a domed top and creates a deeper sense of separation and security. But any large comfortable chair can do, especially if you can put your feet up. As John Loecke, a co-founder of Madcap Cottage, a design and home-furnishings firm in High Point, N.C., said: “A chair gives me permission in a harried world to relax and have 20 minutes of bliss.”
Block Out the Noise
Depending on your situation — maybe noisy kids, or a videoconferencing partner — headphones can be critical for escaping in place. Even regular earbuds will help, but if you want to create a real sense of separation, consider noise-cancelling headphones, which have features that actively dampen noise and, in many cases, cup your entire ear. Armed with my noise-canceling headset, a weighted blanket and a book at my end of the couch by the window, I can tune out the football game the boys are watching on TV.
Lay Down the Law
Most people will pick up cues about when you’re not to be bothered. “But humans vary,” Dr. Augustin said, so you may need to lay down some rules to avoid misunderstandings. Rather than mumbling one-word answers to questions, let your partner, roommates, or kids know that when you have your headphones on, or you’re sitting on the white chair, or whatever cue you’ve set up, that they should let you be for a set period of time.
Some parents put up a sign or flag to signal to their children that they need some “do not disturb” time. If your children have a hard time understanding this, you might consider creating a private oasis for them to enjoy when you pop into yours. Ms. Lawrence, the creative director at Essence, propped up a tent for her daughter in the living room.
Bring the Outside In
If possible, set up your escape area near a window. “It gives you a visual focus length beyond your small space,” Ms. Barrett said. In other words, you can pretend your little oasis is bigger than it really is while relaxing your eyes and your mind.
Seeing greenery — whether out the window, or a plant on a nearby table — can also channel feelings of relaxation and escape, said Paul Harris, Ph.D., a psychologist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., who also holds a graduate degree in design. Indeed, a recent American Society for Horticultural Science study found that workers made better mental-health gains when they intentionally gazed at a desk plant of their own choosing for three minutes whenever they felt stressed. If you don’t have a green thumb, try succulents, which are low-maintenance but visually appealing.
Clear Out Clutter
“We don’t realize it, but we’re constantly surveying our environment,” said Dr. Augustin. For our brains to feel refreshed, “we need to manage the visual complexity,” and this includes clutter. Even if keeping the rest of the place Marie Kondo-neat is futile, commit to making the immediate area of your island and in your line of sight junk free. Keep the books or whatever you want on hand in a nice bin. I find that pushing aside the Legos from my side of the coffee table and couch dissolves considerable anxiety once I finally settle in.
Make It Yours
Mr. Loecke, of Madcap Cottage, recommends decorating your oasis with design elements that mean something to you: “Ask yourself: Is there a place you like to go? A moment you’d like to bring back to life?”
Find some big pillows or a lampshade with patterns that remind you of a tropical escape, or a small area rug with a texture you love. You can also find great frames for road-trip photos, magazine covers, children’s artwork, your favorite gift wrap — really anything.
Lighting can also go a long way toward setting your personal space apart from the rest of your home. Whether you choose a floor lamp or a tabletop lamp, use bulbs that emit pleasing light. Generally speaking, soft, diffuse light can make the space feel more inviting, Mr. Reidy said. It can help delineate your space, and it gives you control to adjust the lighting to your own preferences, without considering the needs of others. That in itself can be refreshing.