Isolation and re-gathering: Tools to enhance emotional resilience
September 28, 2022
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
This seems like a pipe dream. During the recent times of isolation and now as move to regather, when so many have been confined to a few rooms with no partner, lover or family member, this quote feels frustrating . Is this true and if so how!
This kind of quote is a great tool for remembering, re-centering, adjusting our frame of consciousness. We can use them to remind us that there is an alternative to the dark room many of us have found ourselves in. Going to work everyday and coming home with no outlet for the day to day aggravations or the enforced ‘stay home’ that has resulted in millions of people around the world not talking to another soul face to face for more that 30 seconds in a shop. Loneliness, loss of resources the list is long.
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 me that even though it was written 20 centuries ago, history repeats itself and there are reminders and lessons all over history that we would do well to revisit. The Stoic philosophers may offer you some tools for the everyday and for these uncommon times.
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. Now we know that 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 meal after work can require an act of great will, how can we possibly move to a new way to exist? I think this whole pandemic has allowed us to think about interacting differently AND have a different perception of our past.
The many hours we have spent eating dinner calculating the time saved by not ordering a beer, sitting in corners 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 or that we are wasting our time. These are not meaningful interactions, we wistfully remember them as the good times, because we remember those freedoms, but the actual event, maybe not so much.
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.
During the pandemic I think we have unconsciously moved towards approaching connection differently. Because it has been harder to access we have thought about it more closely. The crew you chose 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 important foundations, my opinion, 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, bolster our resilience and help us re enter the world with purpose, courage and the power to say no, I know what I need, this is not for me, but thank you!
Here are some actionable tools that can help with addressing anxiety when it is upon us and some to feel less of it altogether.
Do something for someone else
Send the message, donate some old clothes to a charity shop, 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. Its 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 more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
Be around nature
Some of us are lucky enough to live near parks and beaches. We barely notice them and even when they could potentially be part of our daily journey home we bypass them rather than walk through.
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.
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 then 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.
These are 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 different breathing techniques are described and help with reducing anxiety and resetting the HPA axis.
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.
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 and
Breathe in for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
Breathe out for 4 seconds
Hold for 4 seconds
When in the grip of a panic attack, the system is overwhelmed. It can geel 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.
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 the 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. I have found this practice has moved the needle remarkably on the whole notion of ‘action versus reaction’.
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, for example. 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 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).
Resources that I found helpful
The Daily Stoic - Ryan Holiday’s website, he wrote - The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy
‘Where should we begin’ - Esther Perel’s podcast, like having your own £500 an hour therapy session.
10% Happier is a mindfulness meditation app with specific sessions for stress and anxiety, sleep, relationships
iBreathe - A free breathing app that you can program different lengths of breath into.