No matter what your current role is – new teleworker; parent with young children; older retired person; college student back in the parental home – you are facing challenges both mental and physical during these uncertain times. Living in unrelenting proximity with family or roommates can strain even the closest relationships. The loss of your usual, in-person social connections may make you feel lonely in spite of the constant company of others. And if you live alone, you may be experiencing a particularly acute sense of loneliness and isolation that can become overwhelming if you do not address it.
Nothing can take the place of hugging a loved one, high-fiving a friend, giving a teammate an encouraging pat on the back, dancing at a wedding, or welcoming a new colleague with a handshake. Physical contact with people not in your immediate quarantine circle is not an option right now. But maintaining close connections is possible and, more than ever, vitally important.
Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has talked extensively and written a soon-to-be published book about the health risks associated with loneliness and ways to bolster feelings of connection. He says we can feel lonely even when we interact with others, if we keep an emotional distance. A lack of authenticity during interpersonal encounters fosters loneliness. Being only partly present – checking social media and texts while talking on the phone, say – can be particularly distancing.
So how can we meet our hard-wired needs for social connection and intimacy from a physical distance?
1)Make virtual connections meaningful.
I’ve begun to see a lot of “Zoom burnout” lately, stemming from the proliferation of online meetings, happy hours, and game nights. Interacting with friends and colleagues through a grid on a screen can seem like an antidote to loneliness. But too many of those encounters can make us feel even more detached and isolated if we overload our schedules with them, as many of us are doing, either through necessity or desperation. Try incorporating opportunities for more intimate interactions. Even a 5-minute phone call or FaceTime with an old friend, adult child, parent, or grandparent can offer an opportunity to connect with someone who really knows and cares about us, especially if we fully engage in the conversation without diluting our attention by multitasking.
2) Wave at a stranger.
According to social-psychology research, even seemingly insignificant social interactions, such as making small talk with a stranger in an elevator or chatting with the barista when we order our morning cappuccino, can boost mood and promote a sense of belonging. Elevator greetings and daily coffee runs may be things of the past right now, but we can still create opportunities for casual social exchanges from afar. Try acknowledging a passerby across the street instead of hurrying along with your head lowered. A nod or a wave can be a way of saying, “We’re all in this together.” You may feel a little less lonely as a result. And the small gesture of camaraderie might help someone else get through the day, which brings me to the next point.
3) Reach out to others.
Helping another person can make you feel good, plain and simple. Instead of dwelling on your own pain, make a small difference in another’s life. It doesn’t have to take much time. Just calling a friend who is alone or offering to buy groceries for an elderly or at-risk neighbor will give you a fresh perspective on your own struggles.
4) Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness, as defined by the esteemed meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn,is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” By focusing attention on our bodies and minds right now,without judging our emotional state, we can learn to tolerate difficult emotions, such as loneliness, without struggling against the pain and compounding it. In other words, just become aware of the feeling of being lonely, and try to disengage from the dire messages your mind is sending (“I can’t stand this. If I feel like this for much longer I’ll go crazy. I’ll never be happy again. Nobody else is as miserable as I am.”) The practice of meditation, available through hundreds of apps and YouTube videos, is a way to develop the skill of mindfulness.
5) Cultivate self-compassion.
Doctor Kristen Neff, a psychologist, and colleagues have demonstrated through hundreds of research studies the value of self-compassion for coping with negative emotional states. In a recent interview with Dan Harris on the 10%Happier podcast, she elaborates on how the practice can be particularly helpful for dealing with the challenges we are facing now.
The first step in approaching adversity with self-compassion is, again, mindfulness: become aware of your suffering. The second is to recognize that you are not alone in your struggles, a particularly salient reminder during this global pandemic. Just knowing you are suffering along with all of humanity can help ease feelings of isolation. And the third step, which can be hard for many people, is to comfort and support yourself, as you would a friend or loved one, with a phrase or physical gesture that resonates with you. Dr. Neff recommends putting a hand on your heart, or patting your shoulder reassuringly, or even giving yourself a hug, while you tell yourself, “It’ll be OK,” or “I know you’re hurting right now,” or another statement that rings true for you. It can feel sappy, but the evidence suggests the practice works. And if you are self-isolating right now and are particularly starved for the warmth of a human touch, extending a literal, supportive hand to yourself may help fill the void, if only just a little.
In this moment, we are all struggling to adjust to a new, very surreal way of life. Although we cannot control the situation, we can make it more tolerable by accepting it, even if we don’t like it, rather than trying to fight against it. To differing degrees, we are grappling with a whole range of negative emotions – anxiety, sadness, grief, boredom, anger, frustration, and, yes, loneliness. Our only choice is to cope as best we can, forgive ourselves for having bad days, and remind ourselves it will not be like this forever.
People have strong opinions about New Year’s resolutions, as I’ve been learning over the past week. In the one camp are the Resolution Deniers, who say that resolutions are stupid, pointless, and scientifically proven to fail. In the other are the diehard Resolution Proponents, who embrace the idea of wiping the slate clean and use the start of another year as a motivation to change their undisciplined ways.
Most Resolution Proponents choose two or three popular areas for improvement: diet, exercise, organization and time management. My own vaguely considered goals for the year—all of which I’ve already failed to meet—include:
But my modest attempts at self-betterment pale alongside those of a couple I met at a New Year’s Eve party last week. Together they had made 310 resolutions for 2019. How is it even possible to find so many personal habits in need of improvement?
They started off the year—and it wasn’t even midnight yet—quarrelling about how to fulfill one of the items on their list (which they had written down lest they forget any). The host, a potter, invited her guests to choose an item from her studio to take home with them so she could start making progress on one of her own resolutions for the year: to declutter. But despite the generous offer, the super-resolution couple couldn’t decide if they should take her up on it because it conflicted with their own decluttering goal. They finally reached an agreement: they would accept a vase but wouldn’t allow themselves to bring it into their house until they first got rid of something else.
I wholeheartedly endorse efforts to change. Modifying behavior is, after all, my stock in trade. But in the therapy I do, I also stress the importance of acceptance. Accepting yourself at any given point in time—new year or not—means acknowledging the reality of what is and using that as the starting point.
So if you haven’t exercised in the last six months, say, deciding to go to the gym for an hour a day would be a recipe for failure. When reality collides with unrealistic expectations, people who don’t allow for acceptance often just give up instead of modifying their goals to make them more realistic.
So go ahead and make those resolutions. Just try to work on them imperfectly. You know you’ll mess up. But you can start again, January 1st or not. If you practice acceptance, you’ll be giving yourself a better chance at achieving those three—or 310—resolutions you made for 2019.
My dog Freddie died last month very suddenly and unexpectedly at the too-young age of 10. Chronically anxious and high-strung, he wasn’t an easy dog to live with. But he was intensely loyal, affectionate, fiercely devoted to the family, and so smart he seemed almost human at times. In spite of–or maybe because of–his issues, we loved him dearly.
One of his most annoying habits was barking at the TV. We tried to train him to watch quietly–and watch he did, eyes fixed on the screen and head moving back and forth, taking in the action–but eventually we gave up, endured his loud objections during scenes containing sex and violence, and got used to relying on closed caption to fill us in on the dialogue he drowned out.
Over the years, as I wrote in a previous post, I longed to be able to relax in front of the TV with my dogs curled up quietly at my side. But as long as Freddie was with us, it never happened.
The night after Freddie died my husband and I sat down on the couch in the family room to catch up on the show we’d been following. We didn’t get past the credits before we had to turn it off. The quiet was deafening.
It was more than a week before we could bring ourselves to watch TV again.
A line from an old Joni Mitchell song comes to mind:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone”
RIP, dear Freddie.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.