Conditions are perfect for a Silent Killer to attack our minds, bodies, and most specifically, the emotions within our new culture of social-distancing. That Silent Killer – Loneliness. Let’s understand what loneliness is. Social scientists, as reported by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), define loneliness as “the pain one feels as a result of a discrepancy between one’s social needs and one’s ability to satisfy those needs.”
Said another way, when our need for connection, interaction, and belonging are unmet and we feel unable to fulfill those needs, that pain we feel is loneliness. Why are the current conditions right for loneliness?
Edicts such as “social distancing,” “work from home,” “shelter-in-place,” can all set the stage for increased loneliness. Regular activities such as after-work trips to the bar, small group studies, birthday parties, Saturday/Sunday worship are halted. Our places of employment, schools, and civic communities that we are part of, are all places where we often connect and interact with people. These places, where we connect with people who help us feel as though we belong, have closed their doors.
It’s important that we do not allow ourselves to feel helpless during this time of forced isolation. This is one area where technology can truly help. My son and I have been part of a small group that meets every other week. Last night was the first time we did the meeting online because of COVID-19. It was quite uplifting.
We interacted with people that we have deep connections with within a community that we belonged to. We were able to laugh, talk and just be known by people who care about us. We decided to increase our meeting frequency from every other week to every week because we realized how encouraging it was for our psyche. Part of the purpose of forming social communities is to help us push through difficult times.
How do we use technology to help us ward off the attack of loneliness? Don’t cancel the coffee dates you have with your friends or the post-work drink you have with your co-workers. Continue with your small group meetings and your marriage double dates with your favorite couple. JUST DO IT ONLINE. Schedule a Virtual Date using Google Meet, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Houseparty or any of the other apps available.
Phone calls are nice and text messages can be helpful. However, there is nothing that compares to actual face-to-face interaction and what it does for our emotional connectivity. The ability to see the empathy, shared joy, or the heavy anxiety on your friend’s face enhances the connection in ways that emojis and tone of voice can’t quite match.
Fighting loneliness is not about the number of people you interact with. Shasta Nelson, a healthy relationship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness and Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends doesn’t believe that the answer to loneliness is to go out and make more friends, but to deepen current relationships. It’s being intentional to create opportunities for meaningful interaction within the communities you belong to. And within those meaningful interactions, we must take advantage of the opportunities to connect at a deeper level, to be vulnerable, to be known.
Think about the people in your social community – whether it is family, friends, civic, church, etc. Who do you already have deep connections with? Who do you want to develop deeper connections with? Who are the people that you feel the safest with? We need to feel loved and supported during difficult times. Not only do we need to feel loved and supported, but we must also remember others that are most vulnerable to loneliness as well. Reaching out to those in need is a way to attack our own loneliness.
Nelson suggests that when someone is feeling a deficiency of love and support, “[they should] consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships.” There are times when loneliness is at a place where we need to call and get help from the professionals. Don’t feel like you have to win this by yourself. Many professionals are meeting via phone or video conferencing during this period of social distancing.
As we are being intentional about prioritizing relationships, don’t hesitate to meet online for coffee. Schedule a tea using Google Meet. Create a calendar invite for your book club on Zoom. Use Skype for you and your buddies to work out together. Set up a video chat with an elderly neighbor. Create virtual dates within your social community to lessen and hopefully minimize the discrepancy between your social needs and your ability to meet those needs. And while you’re interacting, connect – really connect. Your emotional wellbeing needs it.
“If anyone is gonna catch COVID-19, I will…” This is a thought that I have had to do mental-battle with in the last couple of weeks. Even though rationally, I know my chances of not catching COVID-19 are really, really good, I still find a sinking feeling creep into me day after day. Even the people that know me have hinted at it, heavily implied it, or come right out and said it.
I check the CDC website daily. I check to see if there are any more cases in my county and the surrounding counties. (And the surrounding states… and countries.) I catch myself wondering if “they” are reporting the numbers accurately. My paranoia doesn’t feel entirely unwarranted. The concern of my family, friends, and co-workers is justified.
My health has been a bit of a dumpster fire. Chronic pain and catching everything going around is just a way of life for me. What follows is far from exhaustive. Consider it my body’s “Greatest Hits.” In no particular order…
- Severe case of mononucleosis in college that went undiagnosed for months, made me miss almost an entire semester and did significant liver damage.
- Spent a week in the hospital with pneumonia. (To answer your question- the worst kind.)
- Contracted a staph infection during knee surgery. Spent two weeks in the hospital being operated on every other day. (Beat sepsis and avoided septic shock! Yay!)
- Diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder. (Of course!)
- Spent a week in the Infectious Disease ward of the hospital because of more staph infections. (Nurses in biohazard suits – scary, not cute!)
- Total of 32 surgeries in the last 25 years on my face, head, both shoulders, elbow, hip, both knees, and I guess you could say, innards. (Not counting numerous other procedures. It only counts if I was completely anesthetized.)
- Totally forgot! Traumatic Brain Injury from a car accident. (Wasn’t trying to be funny.)
It’s a respectable list, but I’m always mindful that there are people out there dealing with far worse health issues. So you can see why I might get a little anxious about COVID-19, right? You can see why people would put all their money on me if there was some kinda morbid betting pool?
Let’s talk about anxiety a second. You don’t rack up a “body count” like mine without having all the exhausting mental health problems that inevitably come with a broken body. Been there, doing that. Here’s the kicker – I was voted “Class Clown” my senior year of high school and THAT is a distinction I have always been determined to live up to! Laughter is the best medicine! How do you beat anxiety and stay fun-lovin’ when you have legitimate health concerns?
- I focus on what is right with me and remember there are people dealing with so much worse. There are people that would trade problems with me any day.
- I’ve been through some hard things. Miserable things I don’t want to do again. I’m certainly not happy about COVID-19 and our present situation. On good days, I try to lean into hard situations and even try to be thankful for them and be open to the lessons they are trying to teach me and the character they are trying to develop in me. (And I stay thankful for the people around me that love me and help me through all of this stuff.)
- I try to be wise. (I try.) There are things I just can’t do, even if I think I can. Frequently, I have to swallow my pride and let other people do things for me. (This is one of the hardest parts. I’d rather help someone than be helped.)
- Specifically related to COVID-19, I do what the professionals say to do. Period. Full stop. I’ve been conscientious about eating healthier, staying hydrated, and getting sleep. I practice social-distancing, wash my hands a ton, make sure surfaces in my house are sanitized. We had a family meeting and continue to work together to be smart and stay healthy.
- I deliberately stay away from people, conversations, and information that is generally negative or will make me feel anxious. That has involved putting some distance between myself and some people. That has involved controlling the flow of information into my brain from television and social media.
- I’ve been using apps like FaceTime and Google Meet instead of simply making phone calls or texting friends and family. Seeing another face is so important for helping me feel better and to really check on how they are doing. Face-to-face communication helps me connect to “my people” who encourage me.
- I’m a big believer in the real power of positive thinking. I decide how I’m going to think about my body and my life. (That’s why I don’t even like writing stuff like this, honestly.) I try not to live in worry and fear or self-pity. I find strength in what I’ve already overcome and will draw on that strength for the next “thing.” But only if there is a “next thing.” I don’t deal with “what ifs,” I just take it as it comes. (When I feel like I am losing the mental battle, I don’t hesitate to call on “my people” and even call on the mental health pros when necessary.)
I’m not going to say that anxiety or fear about COVID-19 is justified. I will say that concern is justified. There is a huge difference. I’m concerned about my health and respond to that concern appropriately by doing what medical professionals recommend. That’s it. That’s what I can control. I’m not going to worry about things I can’t control.
Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned about anxiety is that actively looking for ways to help and encourage other people, is like, magical. It’s hard to worry about yourself and someone else at the same time. It’s hard to worry about things you have no control over while helping to meet the needs of someone else. Nothing feels better than helping other people.
This is the perfect time to think about how other people are doing and reach out to them. What if you could relieve someone else’s anxiety while relieving your own?
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I headed out early one morning to walk. About 20 minutes into my journey, I looked up and WOW! The stars were bright and the sky was clear, something I had not seen in days due to lots of rain. It made me smile.
Let’s be honest. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by all the hard, hard stuff going on. COVID-19 is for sure wreaking its havoc on our nation and the world. It’s like we are at war. News about our economy, job loss, financial devastation, exhausted healthcare workers, not enough supplies, friends and family members testing positive for the virus – sometimes it feels like more than any of us can bear and we wonder, when will it go away?
When I looked up though, I was reminded that even in the midst of what truly is a terrible moment in time where we all have experienced loss, it might be super helpful for me to actually consider all the things I can be grateful for.
It probably sounds crazy, but just seeing the stars and knowing a sunny day was in store lifted my spirits. Here are a few more things I can think of:
- Being able to see a beautiful sunrise
- Working with a team of people who are willing to charge forward even in the midst of challenges
- My health
- Family that checks in
- Being able to get my thoughts out of my head and on paper
- Utilizing my skills to help people navigate through this storm
- A roof over my head and food to eat
- The opportunity to help those who are on the frontlines of this battle
- Feeling all the feelings as I watch businesses donate much-needed personal protective equipment, restaurants providing food to those in need, cafeteria workers working long hours to prepare food that school bus drivers will deliver to families on their route, people stepping up to care for the children of healthcare workers so they can go to work, families willing to live apart in order for one of their members to be on the frontlines, amazing artists sharing their talents either through teaching or providing an hour of entertainment.
- No scheduled activities to keep families from eating meals together
- The signs of new life outside which give me hope for the future
- People all over the nation sitting down at sewing machines to make masks
- It’s not winter so we can at least get outside or at the very least open windows and breathe fresh air
- The symphony of birds singing
- Neighborhoods figuring out creative things to do to help parents and children hold it together – bear hunts, crazy family pictures, scavenger hunts, and I Spy to name a few
- My dog, who has been my companion on all my walks
After making this list and shedding a few tears, it was very clear to me that even in the midst of these heartbreaking moments, I have a lot I can be thankful for.
Getting in and staying in a mindset of gratitude is not always easy during the difficult moments in our lives, but shifting our focus to the things we can be grateful for is good for our mental health and good for the soul.
What do you have to be thankful for today?
Feel like you’re on the verge of going crazy? Have you eaten all your COVID-19 snacks? Do you stare out the window longingly looking at the cars driving by? If so, you might be working from home by yourself!
A little backstory here… My husband and I have only been married one year, but I’ve already gotten used to having him around, like, all the time. Last week, however, he had to go into work while I worked from home. And let me tell you… It was rough. I had SUCH a hard time finding the motivation to get things done and stay focused. If you’re like me and are working from home all by your lonesome (whether you’re married, have roommates, or live by yourself), here are some tips you can use to keep from going absolutely nuts!
- Where You’re Working Matters. Whatever you do, DO NOT work from your bed or your couch, no matter how tempting it is! If you have a desk, use it. If not, work from your kitchen table! Sitting up in a chair and using a tabletop will help you stay focused and prevent you from sneaking that Netflix tab open. (PRO TIP: Try to find a spot that has natural light and isn’t in your main living area. This will keep your body’s natural rhythms in check while also keeping the temptation of the laundry, dishes, or other distractions at bay.)
- Stick to your norm. Obviously, this can’t be done in every way. But, with what you can control, do your best to stick with what you normally would! Do you shower every morning? Do that before you start working! Pack your lunch the night before? Make that a priority (and see more on that in the next tip!). Go on a walk during your lunch break? Keep that up, even if the location has changed!
- Give Your Body Nutrition (But Don’t Overload). Okay, I have to be honest here. Last week, it was a struggle when it came to snacking and meals. Since I had easy access to the yogurt, chips & dip, and cinnamon rolls my husband made, it was nearly impossible for me not to snack on it all constantly. Every time my mind wandered, it landed on snacks. And by the end of day three, I was feeling the consequences of it. By the end of the week, I learned some tricks:
- Pack your lunch the night before. I usually pack my lunch every day for work, so why not do it when working from home? This way, it’s easier to limit my snacking only to what’s in the bag for the day.
- Stick to your normal routine. If you usually have breakfast at 7, a snack at 10, lunch at 1, and a snack at 3, (or is it just me?) stick to that! Your body will react if you change schedules, so sticking to your norm will help your mind stay focused.
- Give yourself smaller portions more often. This is something I live by most of the time, but it is especially helpful when working from home! When you’re able to have more (but smaller) snacks throughout the day, it easily provides variety to your day.
- Get. Moving… A lot. Whether you’re a regular gym-goer or not, your body needs to get some movement in! I won’t lie, I did not follow this tip at all in the first couple of days. (Was anyone else in a total daze the first few days of last week??) But the more I prioritized getting moving, the more I realized its impact! The key here is finding what works best for you. Are you a morning person? Look up some at home no-equipment workouts to do before the sun’s up! Hate working out in general? Go for walks around your neighborhood! Some people work best on a timer (30 minutes of work = 5-minute break/movement session), but I just can’t get into it. I don’t like leaving anything unfinished, so instead I work by task. Once I’ve crossed something off, I do one round of a quick HIIT workout by my favorite trainers. Find what works best for you and stick with it!
- Make a schedule. The above two tips play into this, but creating a schedule for yourself is the biggest key to staying motivated. Motivation comes from completing tasks, so the more things you cross off your list, the more motivated you’ll be to finish it! And when you create a step-by-step outline of your day, you can build in those 5-minute workouts or 10-minute breaks. Not only will this help you stay focused and motivated, but it is actually proven that you’ll get more done!
- Get human interaction where you can. While I am lucky enough to have another person who lives in my house (thank you, husband), I know that not everyone reading this is married or has roommates. If you live by yourself, this tip might be more difficult to put into practice, but it’s not impossible! Rally up a few friends to have a daily lunch video call together. Talk about your days. Take turns asking silly questions. Enjoy the interactions! If you do live with other people that are still going to work during the day, use your time in the mornings and evenings to stockpile your personal interactions! It’s so important now more than ever to put the phones down, turn the TV off, and just enjoy the friendships around you. Virtually, of course.
Although working from home has its perks, working alone can be really challenging. But don’t give up! There are so many great things you can do to keep your focus. Finding what works best for YOU is the most important one. Have patience in the process. Working through change always takes time, but we’ll all come out stronger in the end if we keep trying. I’ll be wishing you all the greatest music, the best snacks, and the most human interaction possible from my quiet, quiet home!
We are fighting an unconventional war against an unconventional enemy. Time to up our psychological warfare game. I give you Sun Tzu from the Art of War:
However desperate the situation and circumstances-
When there is everything to fear-
When surrounded by dangers-
Fear none of them.
When without resources-
Depend on resourcefulness.
Take the enemy by surprise.
Sun Tzu probably never had to work from home and take care of his kids while quarantined.
We’ve definitely been surprised. Is it possible to take the enemy by surprise and regain some lost ground?
Many of us that are working from home and caring for our children feel trapped in a Catch-22. If we attend to our work, we feel like bad parents. If we attend to our kids, we feel like bad workers. (God forbid we attend to ourselves.) We feel like failures on all fronts.
This expresses itself in guilt and compounds our stress and anxiety, so our bodies continue to release stress hormones like cortisol and we function perpetually in “fight or flight” mode. This compounds our struggles.
Tasks feel like they take so much longer. Easy things feel harder. Hard things feel completely impossible. Our brains really aren’t wired to multitask effectively and we are asking them to multitask while under a great deal of stress. That stress is chemical, it is hormones in our bodies. They take their toll and we give up even more ground. Eventually, you are not even you.
You don’t feel overwhelmed; your brain is overwhelmed. It is like overloading a circuit-breaker. It is going to trip and you’ll shut down. Some of us are already there.
Even our sense of time and our internal body-clock get out of whack. For some of us, the days feel unbearably long. For others, the days seem impossibly fast. The rhythms and routines that defined our days have been upended. Things that gave our lives meaning and significance have been taken from us.
Research indicates that child abuse and domestic violence rates are going up. Divorce lawyers are gearing up. These are our families. Our children. Our spouses. The people we love the most that can become both the catalyst and the object of our anger and stress. Make no mistake, we are in a war. The enemy is NOT our family. The enemy is the mercenary Covid-19 and the disruption it has brought to our lives.
We can wage this war with hand sanitizer, disinfectants, hand washing, and social distancing, but the real frontline is our mind. This is psychological warfare. So what are the rules of engagement?
An expert in psychological warfare says, “When people are stressed, there is a temptation to lose touch with reality and to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy, If you blur that line and start making decisions on false data, that’s going to lead to bad decision making.”
Your mind is a Prediction Making Machine. Don’t rely on its guesses based on “false data” about the future and create false narratives like:
- I’m botching my child’s future because I can’t really help them with school.
- My boss probably thinks I’m a bad worker and is gonna fire me.
- My spouse and I can’t get along and my marriage isn’t going to survive this.
- I’m going to be financially ruined.
You don’t have to believe everything your brain tells you. Tell your brain they’re Covid-19 psych ops. Tell your brain that other outcomes can be more likely. Tell your brain you will take things as they actually happen and not react because they might happen.
What are your weapons? Directing your attention to the truth. Adjusting expectations. Practicing gratitude. Exercising stillness. (You don’t have to fill 100% of your day with activity.) Breathing. Releasing tension in healthy ways. Sharing love. Practicing grace and forgiveness. Creatively helping others. Putting off important decisions. All these weapons are right between your ears.
Just knowing you are engaged in psychological warfare is a good start. Hold your ground. Fight the good fight for yourself and for the people you love. Take Sun Tzu’s advice and surprise the enemy by using your best weapon- your mind. Don’t let yourself, family or marriage be a casualty. Don’t settle for being a survivor. Focus your mind on being victorious.
All of us are beginning to realize that life as we have known it has dramatically changed. We are at war against an invisible enemy that is wreaking havoc on our lives. Playdates for our children, lunch with friends, a steady income, worship, exercise classes, school, sports, graduations and even shopping are either non-existent, cancelled, postponed or look very different at this moment in time. Our lives have been interrupted in a huge way.
Even for the most spontaneous person, our dramatically different way of living has many of us on edge.
“During times of trauma and uncertainty, we are stressed, weary and overwhelmed,” says Dr. Gary Oliver, clinical psychologist. “Our typical response is to ‘react’ in the moment, which often makes things worse. This is our emotional brain hijacking our thinking.”
Especially during these times, Oliver says we need to be intentional about “responding” instead of “reacting.”
“In life there are only three kinds of situations: things I can control, things I can’t control but can influence, which is a larger group, but the degree of influence probably isn’t as great as we think, and things that are totally out of our control,” Oliver says. “We can’t control the COVID-19 outbreak. But we can be sure to wash our hands and distance ourselves from others. If you are a person of faith, you can pray. We can exercise to stay healthy, we can be kind and help others who are more susceptible to catching the virus.”
Oliver believes this focus on what we can control and influence will help us thrive as we work to reach the other side of this crisis. For each decision that you face during this time, Oliver recommends that you think of the situation as a blinking yellow caution light. We all need to slow down and proceed with caution. Why? Because we are at risk of acting in ways that will only complicate the situation or possibly make things worse.
Here are some specific actions Oliver recommends to help us deal with the days ahead:
Sit down and make a list of all the things you can totally “control.” In all likelihood, this is a very short list.
Then make a list of the things you believe you can influence.
Finally, list the things you can do nothing about – and this is probably an endless list. Oliver says most of the time people are kind of shocked by how few things they can actually control. Some studies suggest that approximately two-thirds of what we worry about are things totally beyond our control.
Now, rank the list of things you can actually influence from one to 10, with 10 being the highest. The things at the bottom of the list are the things you actually have the least influence over. Then look at the things you scored five and above. Ask yourself, “What are some specific things I can do in these areas?” Your answers may be something like this: I can stay aware of the latest updates or I can practice good self-care.
Speaking of practicing good self-care, Oliver points out that we are only as good for our spouse, children, extended family and friends as we are for ourselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can really be unhelpful to others. You can love yourself and others by eating well, resting, utilizing spiritual resources if you are a person of faith and getting exercise.
Count your blessings. In challenging times, it is easy to focus on the negative instead of what you actually have. Make a list of your blessings. Do you have food? Is there a roof over your head? Can you walk, talk, see and hear? Do you have people who love you and are checking in on you? Do you have electricity, running water and access to the internet? Visually seeing your list is empowering.
Support others. Ask yourself, “How can I encourage, express appreciation, support or pray for others?”
Find ways to connect face to face through Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime or something else. Although we have social distancing, we still need relationships. Texting and Facebook are ok, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Seeing someone’s face and hearing their voice is comforting and psychologically, physiologically and emotionally nurturing. We all need that, especially at this moment in time. Isolation is good for not spreading the virus, but relationship isolation is not healthy.
Pay attention to your pets. Brain science now tells us that interactions with our pets can be life-giving, especially in times of crisis.
When people feel like they can’t do anything, anxiety, fear, discouragement and depression creep in. People become overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
These suggestions may seem small in the scheme of things, but they are not insignificant. Instead, these recommendations can help you grow smarter and make wiser decisions. Look for the opportunity to encourage others, because it’s not just about your own survival.
Ask yourself, “What is going to be my next healthy step?”
How do you typically deal with the surprises life hands you? How you handle these situations – whether it’s a sick family member, a traffic jam on the morning of your big meeting or a last-minute, expensive repair – can determine whether the problem is minor or becomes huge and affects the rest of your day, week, month and beyond.
When unexpected things collide with the best-laid plans, some people have a tendency to react to the emotions of the moment. Their anxiety goes through the roof, they begin to panic, thinking about being late and all of the things they are supposed to get done. This often leads to frustration and feelings of helplessness and in some cases, even feeling hopeless.
How can you effectively prepare for these situations in a way that will help you remain calm, cool and collected? The key is to learn how to respond versus react, so the first item on the agenda is to have a plan and utilize the resources available to you.
The first key: Have a backup plan just in case something goes wrong. This is like having an emergency generator so your life can keep going regardless of the crisis at hand. Be intentional about creating a support network of people who are willing to assist you when you are in a bind. It doesn’t have to be family. It could be teachers, church members, neighbors, the parents of your child’s friends, co-workers, etc.
The second key: Step back and assess the situation before doing anything. People often move to action before actually assessing the situation to determine all their options. This includes getting the facts. We are much less likely to do something ridiculous when we think before we respond.
Once you have your plans in place, remember to follow your plan when the unexpected happens. Having steps to follow helps to make these situations more manageable.
- Keep your emotions in check. Don’t let the situation control you.
- Be prepared. Keep basic medication on hand, have a spare set of keys for your car, take a lesson on how to change a flat tire, give your neighbor keys to your house, etc.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. It is hard to be helpful when people don’t know there is a need.
- Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes talking with an objective third party can be helpful.
All kinds of things will pop up in your life that have the potential to wreck your schedule, cause irritation or create stress, but how you handle it can be a game-changer. The next time you are dealt an unexpected surprise, be ready to respond by staying calm, assessing the situation and working your plan. You will probably be amazed at how quickly you can manage the crisis and get on with your day.
This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 16, 2019.
Have you been to the doctor’s office or emergency room and they asked you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? I really stress out over this question and probably way overthink it. I want to know what a 1 or a 10 stands for so I can answer accurately. If I am going to be healthy – physically and emotionally, I better answer honestly. People are counting on me.