I am an introvert and a hermit by choice. I venture out for projects that allow me to follow my bliss, but in general I need a lot of down-time alone to process and rest. I know this is not how many folks live or like to live, and that these current times of physical and social distancing are quite challenging for many of us, but for those of us who like our own company, it’s probably not much of a hardship.
There are a number of things that I do in my regular day-to-day, that have served me well during the pandemic. I want to share some of these with you. These are tips for how to live in relative isolation, how to find relative peace, and how to make choices.
Physical Isolation and Oxytocin
We are social creatures – we need others to feel safe. It completely makes sense that we feel unsafe and anxious when we can’t be with beloved others, especially during a pandemic. How can we manage this part of the situation? Oxytocin is the key.
Oxytocin is the neurochemical that tells us that we are safe, that we can trust a situation. We feel oxytocin when someone we trust makes physical contact with us, when they speak to us kindly, when we can see a comforting familiar face, and when we feel welcome in a group.
The most obvious ways to invite oxytocin into our system during the pandemic is to connect in online video meetings, to contribute to social media, to talk on the phone, and to talk to each other from a distance outside. But there are other ways we can invite oxytocin into our system when we are alone. I dance, listen to music, talk kindly and supportively to myself, practice soothing touch and connect to myself in silence to encourage oxytocin into my system. You can see other oxytocin-inducing possibilities on the Somatic Self-Compassion Tree of Practices below. While the company of others is nice, we do have choices about how to invite a sense of more safety and trust while we are alone.
Anxiety and Dopamine
Anxiety happens when we don’t know what will happen, when we are fearful of the future. Medicine for anxiety includes:
- finding certainty where there is certainty to be found,
- empowering ourselves to take action, and
- acknowledging that there are a number of things in our experience that we never actually had control over anyway even though we thought we did.
Finding certainty comes from gathering information, and the media has offered this for us. But the media machine has its own agenda – to get our attention to make money – and one sure way to get our attention is to alert us to things that are frightening. Coronavirus is frightening, and so media that continually creates new content designed to evoke our fear response is likely the media that is making the most money. I reflect constantly on the motivation behind the media I am consuming, and I reject media that is designed to make me afraid. I consume official data and information by media I know is motivated by wanting to educate me, the public. I also listen to what my community members tell me about their own lives – this is news. It seems to me that our psychology is not really designed to take in all the bad news from every place in the world – it is designed to take in the news from those who are nearest and dearest to us. This is not to say that we ignore what is going on in the rest of the world; it’s just to suggest we titrate that news rather than allowing it to overwhelm us.
Dopamine allows us to feel certain.
When we are informed, we are in the best position to feel empowered to take action. We can follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. We can support others in following those guidelines. We can see these actions as part of a motivation to keep ourselves and others safe, knowing that we are doing our part.
Acknowledging that we don’t have control over everything is an ancient principle we find in many wisdom traditions. Buddhism talks about everything as being impermanent with the potential to cause us suffering and ultimately not ours to have or to control. In our modern society we can tend to believe that we can make things last forever, that we have control, and that we can avoid suffering. If ever there was a time to explore the reality of living, it’s now. How self-compassionate might it be to allow ourselves to let go of things that are leaving us anyway? To stop trying so hard to achieve a particular outcome? To accept that, despite our best efforts, it’s not a failure when we have been unable to keep ourselves or our loved ones happy or completely safe? This has always been the reality and many of us have resisted that reality – mindfulness and self-compassion support us in turning toward this reality with gentleness and skillfulness.
Another way to address the high levels of cortisol we experience when we feel uncertain is to invite dopamine, which rewards us for getting something right, into our system. Dopamine allows us to feel certain. I encourage dopamine into my system every day through things like watching re-runs of my favorite comedy shows, walking the same route every day, and eating similar foods each day. All of these things give me a sense of certainty – I know how things will turn out and I am rewarded with dopamine each time. Finding consistency and predictability in our daily life is such a lovely act of self-care and self-compassion during a time of tumult. We can find these in our daily activities, and we can also find practices that invite dopamine into our system on the tree above.
Overwhelm and Endorphins
Many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of online offerings like free meditation groups and courses, chain emails and texts, and invitations to support our coping through the pandemic. The fear of missing out can lead us to consuming much more online material than we are accustomed to, leading to eye strain, mental overstimulation and tension over not having enough time to process what we are consuming. For many of us, we have hit the point where we need to close because we’ve been open to all of this stimulation for about a month now and we’re exhausted.
… just the act of standing up from a seated position will invite endorphins into our system.
Closing means allowing our system to shut down so that we can rest and process what we have learned. Introverts are quite accustomed to this need – we close as much as we can in order to process – while extraverts process through communicating with others. Some of us who have not had to close much in the past are finding we need to now.
When I close I do things like simply sit in a comfortable posture on a comfortable piece of furniture, alone in silence: my mind moves in its own time from feeling stimulated to feeling at rest. I also allow myself to set physical boundaries by shutting the door to room to control stimulation. I lay down, sometimes on the floor, sometimes curled up on my side in bed. I go for a walk. I stretch my body.
To support my closing practice in relation to the internet, sometimes I exit out of my email account entirely, or I exit out of all of the internet tabs I’m logged in to rather than just minimizing them, and I shut down my browser. This has the effect of telling my brain that the internet is no longer available right now – it’s not just waiting to be maximized or checked; it’s actually closed. There’s something tangible and powerful about actually closing down my browser. It makes it easier to not return to.
I have been able to limit my online time to one meeting per day.
I also close by turning off my phone ringer at 5pm and on again at 9am. I close by not checking the time in the middle of the night when I wake up so that I’m not thinking about how far away I am from getting out of bed. And I close by not inviting unscheduled phone calls – I am in control of when I speak with someone on the phone.
I realize I am fortunate to have a low cost of living and a penchant for simple living, which leads me the ability to minimize my online meeting time. Even though teaching online is my main source of income, I have been able to limit my online time to one meeting per day. It’s the level of contact that my system prefers and that allows me to thrive. I can give all of my attention to that one meeting, be it in a group or with an individual, and use the rest of my day to write, respond thoughtfully to emails, and listen to when my body needs to move, eat, rest, or watch a show. I know I can avoid overwhelm through this strategy. I invite you to consider how many online meetings you need to attend, and where that sweet spot is that allows you to thrive.
Another effect of overwhelm is that we can become hypoaroused – lethargic, uninspired, and unmotivated. One medicine for this kind of overwhelm is to invite one of our feel-good neurochemicals – endorphins – into our system. We can do this through mindfulness practice and through movement practices. In fact, just the act of standing up from a seated position will invite endorphins into our system. I walk, stretch, watch funny shows, dance and run when I want to feel endorphins. You can find other options on the tree above.
Loneliness and Serotonin
Physical and social distancing can lead us to feeling lonely, especially if we live alone. One of the effects of loneliness is that we feel as if no-one considers us special, that maybe no-one would notice if we weren’t there. One medicine for loneliness is to feel seen and heard, to show up in community in a way that tells us others know we exist.
We can move into overwhelm if we are a member of too many online groups, so choosing our groups wisely is the key.
Depending on where you live, walking outside might be a great opportunity to connect with others, to feel seen and heard. Where I live there are walking paths around a small park that are well populated by walkers at nearly any time of the day. Nearly everyone acknowledges my presence as we pass by each other. I know this is not the case everywhere, and it might be that the more people there are out walking the less likely we are to acknowledge each other because it can become an overwhelming activity in itself, so finding a place to walk outside that isn’t already densely populated might work out better.
Choosing a nourishing online group can help with loneliness. There are many to choose from right now. Being guided by a teacher or facilitator in a practice and connecting with others who are doing that same practice can be a nice way to feel a part of something. We can move into overwhelm if we are a member of too many online groups, so choosing our groups wisely is the key. We do not need to be a member of every group – we could choose quality over quantity. What groups do I get the most out of? Where do I feel most connected? Where can I feel most authentic?
Another way to address loneliness is to reach out to others, to check in on friends. This is not only good for our mental health, but it’s also very practical – we can keep each other safer through connecting regularly, especially those of us who live alone. Messaging, calling, and emailing folks you know to say hello and to check in on them is a lovely way to connect. I have so appreciated the little love notes my community members have sent me. I know that someone is thinking about me when they message me. This gives me a little trickle of serotonin, the neurochemical that tells me that I am special and valued by someone. One of my practices is to simply reach out via email or text when I think of someone, to let that person know that I was thinking about them.
… the adult part of me tell me that “this too shall pass;”
There aren’t a lot of formal practices that move serotonin into our system, but you can find some on the tree above, including mindfulness mediation, dance and yoga. You can read more about loneliness and neurochemicals here.
Trauma and Resources
Surprisingly, one of the most distressing experiences for me about our current situation has been the disruption to my quiet home life by the increased outdoor activity of the children in my community. My window opens onto a creek in a park that is generally pretty quiet. Lately, with children being at home and not able to attend school or camp, there have been groups of bored pre-teen boys hanging out by the creek under my window, breaking branches and continually hitting things with sticks. This sounds benign, but when coupled with my childhood memories of being bullied by the same age group of boys, my hypervigilance over wild animals who live in the creek being hurt (also part of traumatic stress I carry), and feeling hypervigilant to loud, sharp sounds, it created quite a challenge for my coping skills.
I had to bring my trauma-informed training in to take care of myself: to remind myself that this situation is not part of my childhood; to acknowledge the pain from my childhood; and to offer myself choices I don’t prefer even when I would rather the world go back to how I want it to be. So I’ve been wearing earbuds and playing nature sounds through them rather than listening to the sounds outside when particular children are right next to my window. While the defiant child in me tells me I should be able to have my window open and enjoy the nature sounds in my local environment, the adult part of me tells me that “this too shall pass;” that it’s a fine solution to put my earbuds in; that there are parents everywhere, at their wits’ end trying to keep their children occupied and safe; and that my stress is relatively minor in the scheme of things.
I want to validate and honor all of our versions of traumatic stress.
A trauma-informed response to our stress might be locating our emotional state on the Landmarks of Emotions so that we can feel validated in our experience. It might mean that we practice a meditation to help us feel grounded, to relax our nervous system, to soothe anxiety, or to tend to our internal parts. The Somatic Self-Compassion meditation, Choose, Move, Soothe, was specifically designed to help us tend to an overwhelm response where we feel we are not in choice.
And, of course, reaching out to a mental healthcare provider might be what we need at this time.
This is a time that is inviting us into new ways of being. Understanding the neurochemicals that support our wellbeing, and seeking alternative sources for generating these neurochemcials when our routine has been disrupted can be a great way to make informed choices to tend to ourselves.
- Somatic Self-Compassion Tree of Practices and Neurochemicals - May 2, 2021
- Podcast Episode 9: Favorite Things on my Morning Walk - January 27, 2021
- Podcast Episode 8: Slow News Days and Companioning the Neutral - January 22, 2021
- Podcast Episode 7: Self-Care as the Shit Hits the Fan - January 6, 2021
- Podcast Episode 6: Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Anxiety, Isolation, and Quarantine - January 5, 2021