One of the milestones I enjoy celebrating with my clients is when they discover the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. If you are suffering from anxiety perhaps you understand the unrest and fear that can happen when you are alone with yourself. Oftentimes simply just being with your thoughts can be enough to trigger an anxiety attack let alone the content of those thoughts. The journey of coping, existing, understanding, and learning from anxiety is simultaneously arduous and inspirational. Perhaps you are at the point in your own journey where you have put in all the work to finally feel secure, comfortable, and content to be on your own from time-to-time. Then suddenly: COVID-19. How do we navigate the triggers of isolation and quarantining in this time of social distancing and how can we be alone together through these times of upheaval?
First let’s remember that no person is an island and while we can find ways to build self-support we must also honor that human beings are social beings. It’s completely natural to crave social interaction and feel unsettled during this time of forced separateness. If mindfulness has been part of your tool kit for dealing with anxiety then adding self-compassion at this time can be beneficial. In fact, some self-compassion practices invite us to combine elements of touch such as placing a hand on the heart, gently stroking your lap, and even giving yourself a gentle hug in order to heighten feelings of connection. Research indicates these elements of touch in a self-compassion practice have been known to aid in the release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone triggered by social interactions and provides us sense of security.
Secondarily, whether you are quarantined in the suburbs, the country, or the city, nature is available to you as means of connection. If you are limiting your outdoor time to stay safe or you are an essential worker who is inundated with work, connecting to nature doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. Lucky for us, we are nature! Our bodies are made mostly of water and the water we drink has been circulating through other life forms for eons. Additionally, the food we eat to nourish our bones, tissues, and muscles comes from the plants and animals all around us. Lastly, the air we breathe is part of our relationship to the trees and plants. Pausing, saying “thank you” (gratitude practices), or mindfully drinking, chewing, and breathing reminds us that we are deeply connected to the web of life. Also, by focusing on our body through these three mechanisms we focus on the present and this practice can help subdue an anxious mind. (McGeeney, 2016).
Lastly, social distancing invites us to find creative contact with our world. As discussed, nature-based activities can be used as mode of connection. Ecotherapy practices are particularly relevant in helping us achieve equanimity. Equanimity is the ability to cultivate calmness, composure, and evenness of temper. There are nature-based practices you can do from home. Listening to the sounds of nature by opening a window or downloading a sounds of nature app can be a great place to start. Remember, cities are ecosystems too. If the noises and sounds outside your window are that of an urban setting then try listening to these sounds with a beginner’s mind. Allow yourself to get curious about the environment surrounding you.
Other at-home ecotherapy practices may include petting your dog or cat. Research indicates that interacting with your furry friend may also help us to promote the production of oxytocin and engage our limbic system. The limbic system aids us in recognizing and sharing emotion. Essentially it is critical to our capacity for empathy. Another resource to promote connection and feelings of social well-being is interacting or looking at trees. Research also indicates that developing relationships with trees has beneficial effects both physiologically and psychologically. The great news is that we can choose our level of exposure to the outside world as some studies suggest that even looking at trees and plants on our computer screen, or our of our window can help us tap into these benefits (Williams, 2017 “The Nature Fix”).
The lack of access to food, healthcare, our routines, and to other people is enough to cause anyone to have anxiety. For those who are all too familiar with the journey, social distancing may be compounding the effects of anxiety. Finding meaningful ways to feel connected during this pandemic may help you navigate the triggers of isolation and loneliness. Remember, we are alone together.