On March 17, 2020, when isolation became part of daily living in California, the furthest thing from my mind was that I’d be sitting here writing this blog on January 7, 2021, still in isolation. While the intention behind this physical isolation was to protect and provide health and safety during the pandemic, the Shelter in Place and now the Stay at Home orders have taken their toll.
Humans are social creatures. We need to experience the consistent and regular experience of being seen by others, being heard by others, and being in contact with others. As the Dali Lama XIV notes:
“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as a result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment in our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
Often when we are left alone, we are left with our thoughts. Sometimes, this could be an enjoyable experience: reflecting on the pleasant moments or memorable times. These isolated moments bring a smile to my face, and feelings of contentment, happiness, and calm often arise.
However, there are times when this can take a twist into the dark side of my thoughts. This happens when I begin to feel disconnected from the moment that’s happening in front of me, and I turn inward. An intense internal, emotional, and mental experience disconnects my focus from what is around me. My thoughts and feeling get bigger, louder, and more demanding. I am often sucking the air out of my brain and into the terrifying maze of moving walls and endless hallways going nowhere.
This is commonly known as rumination. Rumination is how cows eat grass, chewing and re-chewing their food. For humans, rumination is a thought process that is alluring and addicting. It often happens when you are ending your day or wakes you up at 4 am. A thought pops into your head, and you feel unpleasant; you start to worry, and the view gets bigger. The harder you try to think of all the possibilities, the more intense your feelings. The alluring part is you believe that you’re solving a problem, but actually you are stuck in a maze that sends you around and around. Each time you pace through the labyrinth in your mind, it triggers more intense emotions such as anxiety, angst, or dread. The feelings you are trying to dial down become intensified. In this moment, you are in a state of complete self-absorbed isolation. This is the isolation that’s unhealthy.
You’re busy taking twists and turns down dark alleys and long, endless paths. You intently believe that you’re going somewhere, yet your anxiety is only getting more intense. Does this sound familiar? Ruminating is a significant player in the upsetting game of Anxiety and Depression moods. I’m thinking this many of you have been allured into rumination since March.
There are several antidotes. One of the more powerful yet currently difficult remedies is staying connected to friends, family, and neighbors. While difficult, it is one of the best ways to get out of your head and way from self-absorbed isolation.
After a long night of rumination, there’s a moment where you let someone know what you’ve been thinking how your whole family is going to die of COVID. And you discover that you’re not alone. Because they respond, “Oh yeah, I have those kinds of thoughts all the time. The other day when I went to buy toilet paper, and there wasn’t any, I found myself immediately going back to that time in March (over and over again) when I was looking for rolls on Amazon at 1 am because I thought the end was coming.”
As I noted in the beginning quote from the Dali Lama, “happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.” There is great value in knowing that you’re not alone, you’re not the only one who thinks these thoughts, you’re not crazy, and spending some time venting with a good friend or family member can be helpful. On the other hand, you want to be cautious about starting a co-ruminating session. This occurs when there is a complaint loop, telling the same story repeatedly to another person.
So how do you express these feelings in a way that generates a process that relieves you of some angst or worry and either leads to letting it go or problem-solving? Or creates a sense of forward movement? Well, you can ask yourself, what do I want out of this conversation? Do I just need some time to vent, or am I looking for some feedback on how to solve a problem or perhaps some emotional support? Setting the intention about what you’re looking for and thinking through how you’re going to express yourself will give you a higher probability of actually getting what you need and feeling seen and heard. Your mind is often more flexible and free to analyze, examine, and, if necessary, problem self.
When you notice anxiety, depression, or irritability sucking you into your ruminating mind maze, step back, hit the pause button, and shift perspective. Allow the increased anxiety, depression, or irritability to become a barometer, letting you know that it’s time to share or vent to a supportive person in your life.
10 ways to stay connected during COVID-19