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  • teresamckee

Living in Isolation

I’m entering my 6th week of what I’m trying to remember to call a secluded retreat. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve been absolutely nowhere, other than three trips to the grocery store, in six weeks. I know some of you have been at home even longer.

I know that I’m very blessed that I’ve been able to continue working during this whole period, even though I have complained a bit about being way too busy. That busyness has probably helped me tremendously in staying less lonely or from going completely stir-crazy. I can’t see anyone in person, but doing coaching sessions, interviews and webinars on Zoom has at least allowed me to connect to a lot of people over the weeks and while it’s not the same as actually being with other people, it’s a pretty good substitute.

Watching the unemployment numbers skyrocket, I cannot imagine how I would feel at this point if I didn’t have my work. Or if I was a stay-at-home parent prior to the shutdown. Or if I lived in a nursing home. Or if I was an essential worker having to be exposed to the virus every day. There are so many scenarios that I know many of you are living that must be so much more challenging than what I’m experiencing and my heart goes out to you.

I remind myself of how difficult this is for so many people as I watch the news of cities and states trying to open up, as well as protests taking place across the country. Unfortunately, fear spreads faster than a virus and I try to feel empathy for those that feel they just can’t wait any longer. They trigger my own fears, however, that as miserable as many people are, rushing to reopen businesses and public spaces may ultimately prolong our isolation, which will lead to even more people becoming unemployed and more businesses to fail, not to mention increase people suffering and even dying from the virus as it flares back up because we don’t have the proper mechanisms in place to actually open up yet. And people protesting without masks while standing shoulder-to-shoulder unfortunately indicates that as a society, we may not yet be conditioned enough to follow physical distancing rules.

Having said that, several areas are opening up on a limited basis, so hopefully enough people rise to the occasion and keep their distance so as not to set all of us back. Here in California, we’re experiencing record heat, so I’ll be watching coverage of the beaches and praying that people remain mindful and aware. Only time will tell I guess and all we can do is hope for the best.

I think it’s imperative that we recognize that staying isolated is not something that we’re just doing for ourselves. We’re doing it for others. For most of us, remaining in isolation is an act of altruism - we’re preventing others from getting sick as much as protecting ourselves. Mindfulness includes considering the greater good in every action we take, so staying in isolation is an extremely mindful act. It’s actually amazing that most of us are staying in, coping as best as we can, and even helping others while restricted.

I think it’s the coping factor that we need to seriously consider now. With each passing week in isolation, we are more at risk of feeling lonely. Whether you live alone or with other people, you can experience loneliness. Loneliness can have significant, negative health effects and was actually a problem even before the virus hit. An annual study conducted by Cigna showed in January that there was a 13% increase in loneliness compared to a year ago.

That report found several factors that were linked to increased feelings of isolation during the last year, pre COVID-19. The survey found 63% of men and 58% of women to be lonely. More alarming, social media use was tied to loneliness, with 73% of very heavy social media users considered lonely, as compared with 52% of light users.

According to Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, "In-person connections are what really matters. Sharing that time to have a meaningful interaction and a meaningful conversation, to share our lives with others, is important to help us mitigate and minimize loneliness." Uh oh.

Here’s why this is so important. Loneliness and isolation are associated with a 29% higher risk of coronary artery disease and a 32% higher risk of having a stroke. A recent study from Harvard suggests that thinking skills declined about 20% faster over 12 years in the loneliest people in the study, compared with study participants who reported that they were not lonely. And a 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who identified themselves as lonely were 59% more likely to lose the ability to perform tasks of daily living and 45% more likely to die early than those who didn't identify as lonely. Other studies have associated loneliness with depression and high blood pressure.

Further, none of us are immune. Feelings of isolation are prevalent across generations, with Gen Z-ers experiencing the highest average loneliness score and boomers the lowest, but overall, more than half of us were feeling lonely before the pandemic shut down.

Why does loneliness have such an impact on us? According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry, there are several factors, but basically, we simply do better physically when we're part of a community. He said that we are social animals who have evolved to do best when we're engaged with others. Also, when we're with friends and family, we benefit from 'social contagion,' where we pick up on what others are doing for health, or others encourage us to do something about our health. Again, uh-oh.

Although social media seemed to be a factor in increasing loneliness, I think we have an opportunity now to change how we use it. Since a key to minimizing loneliness is meaningful connection with others, let’s use our technology to our advantage. We can have meaningful conversations online and on video. There are multiple apps now that provide the ability for us to see each other online which I think is imperative to boosting the feeling that we’re together. We need to do this on a regular basis, so make it a daily habit to reach out to someone and really engage in those conversations. Post on social media or respond to other's posts, but stay positive. Now is not the time to start a Twitter war. Search for groups that focus on topics you enjoy or that share your interests. You can stay in touch by texting or instant messaging, but make sure you also converse with someone on a deeper level to help strengthen social connections.

We also now have the ability to participate in online exchanges with people from around the world. I’ve been volunteering for Mindful Leader in facilitating online meditation sessions for the past few weeks and it’s incredible how quickly you can feel connected to a complete stranger from Australia or Thailand or North Carolina in a matter of minutes when you have something in common. There’s also a new service called QuarantineChat that works with both Android and IOS phones with the app DialUp, so it’s completely free. You sign up with your phone number and you get random calls from other people who are in isolation where you can talk about anything and everything. What a novel way to make new friends!

If you don’t like the idea of connecting online or using technology, there are other ways you can connect. Send handwritten letters the old-fashioned way. Writing your thoughts and feelings is a powerful exercise for your mental health and you’ll enjoy the anticipation of waiting for a reply. Call someone on the telephone, particularly on days you are feeling lonely. Talk to your neighbors, while staying six feet apart of course. We can easily sit in a lawn chair and engage in conversation with neighbors, friends and even people walking by without getting too physically close. If you don’t have a porch or yard, open up the windows and start a conversation with someone else from their window. We may have to think a little out of the box here, but we are a creative species, so we can do this.

If you live with others, make time each day for sharing feelings, ideas and information with each other. I understand some of you may be a little tired of only seeing the same people every day, day after day, but make an effort. Perhaps you could agree on a new hobby you can work on together that would spark new interest and conversations, while minimizing boredom.

That leads to other things you can do to reduce loneliness. Finding ways to give yourself comfort even when you are feeling lonely can help to improve your mental health. Give yourself a foot massage, cook healthy comfort food, have a cup of herbal tea, take up a new hobby like crocheting or origami or baking. Reorganize a room or a closet.

If you're finding it hard to express what you’re feeling, it can be very cathartic to write your feelings down. Start a journal and make entries in it every day. Writing is another great practice in general, so perhaps it’s time to try writing an article, short story or even a novel.

Another way to boost your mental health is to find healthy distractions. Read a book or re-read a favorite book. You can also join an online book club to discuss what you’ve read and to get great tips on what to read next, like on Goodreads. You can also listen to books through services like Audible. Most libraries are also offering audible books online that you can check out for free. I know many of us are spending way too much time watching television, but if it makes you feel good, just do it. Consider watching TED talks on YouTube to learn fascinating new things. Sprinkle in a few documentaries on topics that interest you in between your series binge-watching. Museums and national parks are offering virtual tours, so why not take one? And of course, listen to podcasts. There are over a million of them, so you’re bound to find some of interest.

Finally, one more tip – practice mindfulness. Studies show that mindfulness helps reduce loneliness. Monitoring present-moment experiences with an orientation of acceptance results in a reduction of the anxiety that arises from loneliness, while increasing our empathy and compassion for others, which improves social relationships. Mindfulness also includes self-compassion, which is so critical during this difficult time. If you find yourself saying things like "I shouldn't be feeling this way" or pushing away difficult emotions, this will only make your loneliness persist. Be kind to yourself and recognize that your feelings are valid, whatever they are. Be gentle and loving with yourself. We can all use this time to strengthen our mindfulness skills which will boost our mental and emotional well-being. So remember to mind your mind.

Listen to the podcast for a guided meditation.

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