Isolation anxiety – How to enhance emotional resilience

image credit: erhui1979 | Getty Images

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius

This seems like a pipe dream. During these times of isolation when so many are confined to a few rooms with no partner or family member, this quote feels frustrating . What’s the point of ridiculous, annoying unfathomable ways of thinking anyway?

Having emotions and acknowledging them is important. It’s ok to feel that this situation is difficult. Pretending to others or convincing ourselves that we are ‘fine’ is not a healthy way to live and will undoubtedly impact on our connections and relationships with others. By responding honestly to a question we can start to chip away at the mask we put on – partly to save ourselves (or se we believe) and partly to ensure others around us aren’t drawn into our suffering. ” I don’t want to be a burden”. The mask is heavy, cumbersome and eventually wearing it becomes untenable.

So what about quotes! They are a great tool for remembering and re-centering. We can use them to readjust our frame of consciousness.  A page holder, reminding us of tools we possess to help us through. Information that we forgot we knew. We can use them to remind us that there is an alternative way to view the monotony, the same four walls many of us have found ourselves confined to. Physically and emotionally it’s easy to feel trapped. Going to work everyday and coming home to the same thing, no perceived outlet for the day to day annoyances except Netflix and booze. The aggravations or the enforced ‘stay at home’ that has resulted in millions of people around the world not talking to another soul face to face for more than 30 seconds, it has resulted in a lot of time to left with our own thoughts. For some this has meant the experience of a loneliness unlike any time before.

The Stoic philosophers are a great resource for these times. Stoicism doesn’t mean repressing your feelings and becoming a passive observer to your own life. The Stoics are all about realising that you should concentrate on mastering what you are in control of. Based on the four principles of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom picking up a book like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius reminds us (even though it was written centuries ago) that history repeats itself and there are reminders and lessons throughout time that we would do well to revisit.

The Stoic philosophers may offer you some tools for the everyday and for these uncommon times. They also remind us that emotions like anger and envy feel delicious for a second, but the Buddhist depiction of anger having a honeyed tip with a poisoned root is too true. The negative emotions incited by watching someone walk down the street in a crowd of people for the 5th time that day, or the irritation of someone barging past you in a supermarket seemingly oblivious to physical distancing advice, can throw you right up onto that judgy high horse, there we feel momentarily justified and worthy AF – but who does it affect most? If the feeling is momentary it can be useful – reminding you to keep your distance, or to be kinder to people but when its prolonged, it is only you that suffers. At somepint these negative feelings are unhelpful. They hinder us.

That rise in bile, the increased blood pressure, the heart pounding frustration – only you feel that. Definitely not the person it’s directed at, even the passive aggressive barb that we might throw on occasion leaves us can leave us feeling more ashamed than victorious. We are reacting to others and instead of being in control of our responses, we allow ourselves to be affected by the actions of people we’ve never even met. Ludicrous when you think about it. The Stoics teach us that when we come prepared we are resilient.

By looking forward to whatever can happen as though it would happen, he will soften the attacks of all ills, which bring nothing strange to those who have been prepared beforehand and are expecting them; it is the unconcerned and those that expect nothing but good fortune upon whom they fall heavily. Sickness comes, captivity, disaster, conflagration, but none of them is unexpected—I always knew in what disorderly company Nature had confined me.

Seneca

Loneliness is pervasive. It has been described as the discrepancy between desired and perceived social relationships.  A meta-analysis of prospective studies involving loneliness suggest that there may be a connection between loneliness and poor health, including the risk of premature death regardless of age.

It is important to highlight the difference between loneliness and social distancing. Physical distancing does not have to mean a lack of social connection. What it does mean is we have to be innovative in how we interact.  We exist in a society where even cooking a whole food meal after work can require an act of great will, now we have to learn about how we interact and why that impacts on our mood? We don’t really need to interact differently but we do need to have a different perception of our past. 

The many hours we have spent eating dinner with ‘work friends’, calculating the time saved by not ordering a beer, sitting in dingy smoke tinged corners of beer gardens wondering how long we have to leave it before we can escape without causing offence.  How many parties, dinners or meetings have we endured barely registering what another person is saying, smiling and feeling like we don’t belong.  These are not meaningful interactions, we wistfully remember them as the good times but they weren’t really, were they? We then return home frustrated that bed time has been pushed back and the next day will be greeted with a bleary eye and acid reflux. Generally those are experiences that we could do without. That’s not to say that doing things for other people is worthless, of course it is vitally important to feel connected to others in this world, but there should be a sense of joy in those actions.

Johann Hari’s book ‘Lost Connections’ suggests that loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, it is the sense that you are not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. This in essence is why we have felt lonely for years. Even surrounded by people. Walking down full city street’s, hot summer evenings in friends gardens, concerts, birthday parties, weddings, funerals… we feel alone because we have lost the skill of connecting. We can’t distinguish between being amongst people and being connected to them.  Instagram fools us into believing we are interacting with people, but we are separated by transparent walls, envious instead of supportive, performative instead of allies.

The crew you choose to ‘Zoom’ with regularly are likely to be a group of people that you know you can count on, perhaps not always to agree with you but to engage meaningfully. Your curated village, a step towards remembering that one person cannot satisfy and entertain every aspect of your complex personality.  That’s a good thing. Diversity of minds and cultures, spirits, points of view.  That may be what you’re doing with your weekly zoom meetings without ever really thinking about it. When you do think about it in this way it may inspire a sense of belonging. One of the triad of things in my opinion that is required for happiness.

The theory of all of this is all well and good but what good is understanding the nature of something if it’s not something we can incorporate into daily life. What can we do to feel better, bolstering our resilience.

  1. Do something for someone else

Send the message, donate some old clothes , chat to the person you pass in the street everyday, smile at the neighbour you make a point of pretending not to notice even though you don’t know why? It helps. It’s connection and it will feel good. A reminder that all our stories are connected. Cultivating this idea is the basis of compassion (also a pretty stoic concept). The near enemy of compassion is burn out. Developing a sense of equanimity is the antidote to this. True compassion involves a wisdom that we cannot change another person’s suffering. We can flex this muscle and actual change our neural pathways with a from of meditation known as ‘lovingkindness’. If you think that this sounds all a bit to squooshy, reflect for a second on how much time you spend a day feeling annoyed by people on instagram, wondering why someone whose skills you value less than yours is doing so well. How long do you sit raging in the car for when someone drives obnoxiously? How many hours do you spend beating yourself up about the way something has gone, or a thing you said or didn’t say. Compassion for ourselves and others can be trained, our brains can work differently and as such we all suffer less.

“Compassion allows us to use our own pain and the pain of others as a vehicle for connection. This is a delicate and profound path. We may be adverse to seeing our own suffering because it tends to ignite a blaze of self-blame and regret. And we may be adverse to seeing suffering in others because we find it unbearable or distasteful, or we find it threatening to our own happiness. All of these possible reactions to the suffering in the word make us want to turn away from life.”

Sharon Salzberg

  1. Be around nature

Some of us are lucky enough to live near parks and beaches. We barely notice them and even when they could be part of our daily journey home we bypass them rather than walk through.

Walk through the park. Notice the sounds and the smells, the wind on your face, how cold your hands feel, that your feet ache. Notice things.

We don’t need wide open spaces to benefit from nature. Grow some herbs, get some houseplants, look after something green. Indoor plants have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, improve indoor air quality and generally just make people feel more invigorated and capable. – a bonus for those of us having to motivate ourselves to work from home.

  1. Utilise breathing techniques

Activating the parasympathetic nervous system which works in opposition to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system is paramount in counteracting prolonged stress and anxiety. 

Stress isn’t a bad thing but the response to it is meant to prepare us for an event by releasing adrenaline – fuel sources, preparing us for battle.  It involves the HPA (Hypothalamic- Pituitary- Adrenal) axis.  The system is meant to respond to an event by utilizing a feedback loop – end. We are not built to have this system chronically stressed and continuously switched on, the feedback loop misfiring.

One way to counteract this chronic stress which many are experiencing during this lockdown period is by using breathing techniques that help activate the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system.

For all- sit tall, lengthen your spine, pull your shoulder blades towards your bum and breath in through your nostrils and out through either your nose or mouth.

Pranayama techniques used within yoga practices. They have been around for centuries and still persist. Science backs the practice as we have moved through the years. Various breathing techniques are described and help with reducing anxiety and resetting the HPA axis..

‘Relaxing’  breathing  

  • Inhale for 4 seconds   
  • Hold for 7seconds   
  • Exhale  for 8s
  • A prolonged exhale is helpful in settling the system.

Ujjayi ( victorious breath /ocean breath) 

  • Inhale until you reach your lung capacity.
  • Hold for a second.
  • Exhale slowly through both nostrils. Make it a noisy breath.
  • Good time frames for inhale and exhale are about 7 seconds each.

Box breathing  

During periods of extreme stress when you can literally feel your heart beating faster than usual, your breathing feels shallow and rapid, essentially when you’re fully on your way to panic then box breathing is an excellent technique to try and quiet the mind.

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 seconds
  • Breathe out for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 seconds

Panic 

When in the grip of a panic attack, the system is overwhelmed. It can feel like you are about to die. Your breathing is quick and shallow, you are in effect hyperventilating.This can result in physical symptoms of your muscles spasming and even passing out. These are physiological reactions to breathing out all of your carbon dioxide. In these ‘end of the line’ situations grabbing a paper bag, putting it over your nose and mouth and rebreathing carbon dioxide whilst concentrating on elongating your breaths for just a minute can be an effective way to stop the physical symptoms that reinforce the terrible feeling that something bad is happening.

You might also try a cold shower first, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, acting as a hormetic stressor, build up to a few minutes. it feels incredible when you step out. Not just because you’re getting out I hasten to add!

4. Mindfulness meditation

Anxiety feels inescapable at times.  We get trapped replaying scenarios or feeling overpowered and held hostage by physical symptoms. This can be ameliorated using mindfulness. Specifically engaging with how the body experiences anxiety – ‘my stomach is tight,’ ‘my throat feels like it’s closing,’ ‘my heart is pounding’ and identifying the emotion as anxiety, labelling it, can be enough to move focus from the anxiety and break the cycle.  Sometimes when these feelings are overwhelming just concentrating specifically on the sensations (heat cold, itching, pain) in one part of your body e.g. your hands can help do the same.

5.Gratitude Journaling

This can take any form you want, long form prose, bullet points, but even spending 5 minutes thinking about what you are grateful for that day and listing them is increasingly being proven to improve mental health by shifting the mind away from toxic emotions that consume us and even result in release of flight or fight hormones. It helps people become more resistant to the poor outcomes of chronic stress, generally have a more positive outlook on scenarios and strengthens the concept of self worth and the importance of social connection.

The results on the brain have been noted via fMRI scanning, and though it may take a number of weeks, the results are long lasting.

‘Positive reframing underlies the relationship between trait gratitude and a sense of coherence. A sense of coherence is how confident a person feels about potential life outcomes. It is the degree to which a person feels optimistic and in control of future events’. (Lambert, Graham, Fincham, & Stillman, 2009).

Hundreds of people benefit from a morning routine, here’s one –

  • Wake naturally (if you are early to bed early to rise or the opposite – it’s genetically predetermined, you may find you natural rhythm in this lockdown without the required demands of a 9-5)
  • Brush teeth
  • Meditate 10 minutes
  • Cold shower
  • Go to work/ work out/ do stuff

  • At night spend 5 minutes writing in a journal and do a few minutes of breath work or a relaxation meditation to aid sleep.

In the 24 hrs of each day this totals a minimal amount of time and gives rise to the other 23 hrs being generally much more pleasurable.

Resources

The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday’s website, he wrote – The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy https://dailystoic.com/

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius ( a new translation by Gregory Hay) https://www.booksellers.org.uk/industryinfo/industryinfo/findyourlocalbookshop

‘Where should we begin’ – Esther Perel’s podcast,  like having your own £500 an hour therapy session. https://whereshouldwebegin.estherperel.com/

10% Happier is a mindfulness meditation app with specific sessions for stress and anxiety, sleep, relationships https://www.tenpercent.com/

iBreathe – A free breathing app with preprogrammed breathing sessions https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ibreathe-relax-and-breathe/id1296605806