Are you feeling lonelier these days? Is the pandemic exacerbating those feelings?
Luckily, the physical state of being alone has very little to do with feeling lonely: they’re not the same things! You’ll be glad to know that loneliness is not pathology; it’s an external signal from your body that something is wrong with your environment.
Loneliness has always been a part of life; the pandemic may be heightening the experience. And if you’re coupled and both working from home, you can – ironically – feel lonely even if you’re with your partner 24/7. Loneliness isn’t about your situation; it’s what you tell yourself about your situation.
How can you ward off loneliness while in self-isolation? Find new ways to regain control: having a sense of control is essential for your sanity. But with COVID-19, fires across the state, police brutality and the upcoming election, things are changing all the time. How can we have a sense of control when things might be radically different next week?
I have found Buddhist psychology to be helpful in this situation. “Comfortable with Uncertainty”, a book by American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, has long been a guide for me, and I often share the book – and its wisdom – with my clients.
“Be Here Now”, the classic little blue book by queer elder Ram Dass, says it all right there in the title. Focusing on the future can make anyone scared. Pandemic or not, we can’t control the future. How many of us ever expected a pandemic like this or a president like Trump?
Who knows what life in San Diego will be like next year? Be. Here. Now. Don’t let your mind wander to the future. Ask yourself: Am I safe right now? Do I have enough to eat today? Am I okay at this moment? Focus on what in your life you can control, that will give you a sense of stability in these uncertain times.
Loneliness gets worse when you focus on the future:
“When can I hug someone again?”
“How long will I have to work from home?”
“Will I ever find a partner now that COVID-19 restrictions are here?”
“My grandma’s health is bad: when can I safely fly home to see her?”
You can’t answer these questions. You can, however, ask different questions:
“How can I stay in touch with the people I love today?”
“How can I make working from home today as pleasant as possible?”
“What kinds of dates can I go on that are ‘safe’?”
“Can I FaceTime grandma, send her cards, flowers, presents?”
Answering these kinds of questions gives you a sense of control. Staying calm and feeling safe is possible, even in these unpredictable times.
The next time you feel scared or lonely, focus on your breathing. Breathing brings you into the present and helps turn off your mind for a bit, so that all those catastrophizing thoughts are put on “pause”.
Try slowly breathing in and out three times. Pause. See if you don’t feel a little better. Repeat.
Another way to stop yourself from spiraling down is to spell your name out loud. It stops your mind from obsessing on negative thoughts of the future. (I know it sounds weird, but try it).
When you mind drifts into alarming thoughts about the future, gently bring it back to the present. It’s like potty training a puppy: when you want your new darling to pee on the newspaper and the puppy keeps wandering off to pee on the carpet instead, you gently bring the puppy back to the newspaper and say, “This is where you pee” and when he/she pees on the newspaper, you reward this sweet creature with love and a puppy treat.
Basically, you do the same thing when you’re training your mind to stay in the present: when your mind wants to go wandering off into the future, you gently bring your mind back to the present and say, “This is where I want to be” and give yourself some love and a little reward.
Be a kind and gentle trainer for Your Inner Puppy. In times like these, it really helps.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.