Impact of Isolation
Upon my return to my practice after the Spring break that never was, I found myself asking the same simple question to my clients: what is life like for you now?
The majority responded in a similar way: an initial experience of fear and uncertainty, and then a gradual settling into a new normal. But while the intensity of fear and uncertainty has abated for many people, the reality of our new normal has only intensified, and it’s not one we like at all.
By nature, we are social creatures. We are not meant for social isolation. We are meant to be in connection with others, where we find meaning and joy and energy. Togetherness enriches relationships, accounts for new friendships and romance, provides economic opportunities, creative outlets and, most powerfully, a place for us to feel deep comfort and broker our thoughts and feelings.
Additionally, the ability to wander the earth as we please, to the grocery store, office, park or pool, is a freedom we feel entitled to. Our daily life is usually quite dynamic and filled with all sorts of stimulation to keep us moving forward. We’ve engineered purposeful lives that thrive on social interaction.
But things are different now. Social distancing is our new way of living, and while our desire to connect remains the same, it’s now thwarted at every turn, and discomfort mounts.
Normally, we may experience one, maybe two stressors at a time. To mitigate this stress, we can engage in a variety of carefully curated self-care practices to help us restore emotional regulation relatively quickly. We have control over our choices and how we overcome adversity.
Now, however, we are faced with a much different scenario. Not only do the stressors continue to pile up, but we’re also being asked to navigate these changes at Mach speed, without access to our regular self-care strategies, without the people we would normally turn to for support, without an end date.
Staying home may sound simple enough, but the impact of a sheltered, hermitic life can take its toll. Dynamics have changed so rapidly in the home that routines and structure may no longer exist, roles and responsibilities have been revised, household income may be dramatically reduced, and home may not be a safe place anymore.
The combination of prescribed social isolation and the uncertainty of what’s coming next can bring up shades of anxiety that range from anger to catastrophizing, from avoidance to rebellion, from restlessness to substance abuse. For others, sadness and depression, fatigue, withdrawal, appetite and sleep disturbances, loneliness, trouble concentrating, or decreased sex-drive is more characteristic.
We are all connected by grief at the moment. But all is not lost. Here are a few things you can explore to accept social distancing and self- isolation in a way that works for you:
First, ask yourself, what’s within my control? Act in service of the things you can control instead of the things you can’t. Stay in the present moment, make a schedule for the home, set a new budget, create a ZOOM event, for example.
Second, find gratitude for the things you do have. Ask yourself, what do I have now that brings up joy? You may find yourself being grateful for the small pleasures in life.
Here’s a few more invitations:
· Go easy on yourself. Things are hard. Lower expectations of self and others so you can do what you can to get through the day. Now is not the time for perfection.
· Slow down. Time is a gift and we have the opportunity to take advantage of it, whether it’s a more leisurely breakfast with family or looser work timelines.
· Hug and kiss the people in your bubble. Physical touch and affection creates a flood of the feel good hormone oxytocin which is the antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol.
· Try new things. Get creative. Find fun.
· Stop comparing your self-isolating life to others. There is no road map, here, and one way is not better than the next. Find a new normal that works for you and let the rest go.
· Suspend judgment. Empathy is a kinder choice we all need right now.
· Exercise in the limited way you can, and be mindful of your diet and sleep hygiene habits.
· Express your feelings to a trusted person, and if you need more support, reach out to a mental health practitioner.
We aren’t being chased by lions anymore, but it feels like threat is everywhere right now. It’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to feel overwhelmed. Take time to acknowledge and flow through your feelings. Our current predicament challenges a great many of our comfort zones, and even though we feel vulnerable right now, we are also incredibly resilient people.