Hacking the 3rd Stage of Isolation

You likely have noticed variations of this yourself: feeling unmotivated: "What did I do all day? Where did the week go?", a little disoriented: "What day is it?!", a little depressed: "I don't really want to get out of bed." What is there to look forward to?" I have heard all of this lately and more. This is not to say that you aren't also having really positive or at least neutral experiences, of course. But what I want to help you boost is your resilience to stress in all ways, and isolation or loneliness can be, hands down, a powerful stressor.


The good news is that we can hack this; we can rise through these challenges, find ways to overcome the roadblocks, the quicksand, the quagmires, the precipitous cliffs, the turbulent waters and weather, the endless deserts and prairies, the thicket strewn, dark woods. All are variations of the challenging emotions, the energy and attitudes that people are reporting now. More than ever, people may now know they are not alone in feeling these ways, despite all the ways they are feeling alone.


Before I suggest ways to hack this (and remember you can skip this part to get to the good, juicy and maybe even fun parts of this post), I want to share more of what is known about how isolation and the uncertainty of the unknown affect people. I do this so you can place your own emotional challenges...whatever they are...in a larger context, so you don't pathologize or blame yourself or your significant others.


I just read an article by James Purtill, "We have begun the dreaded 3rd quarter of isolation--yes--when things get weird" They quote from a 1985 book Living Aloft: Human Reuqirements for Extended Spaceflight, that the experience of isolation can be chunked into 4 quarters: 1) heightened anxiety (think buying & preparation panic), 2) developing routine with often some depression showing up 3) anticipation with "emotional outbursts, aggressiveness, and rowdy behavior, & 4) preparation for re-entry (though this isn't addressed in the above article.

In the 3rd stage Purtill writes we find "hollow-eyed stares, odd fixations and brooding resentment. Time grows sludgy. The days blur into the nights, and the weekdays into the weekends. You've hidden the notifications from a recently downloaded exercise app and you're no longer telling people you'll learn Italian. You begin to suspect that your friends have their own Messenger group."


He also reports that in 2000, a study of the psychological effects of prolonged stay at Antarctic research stations discovered "significant increases in interpersonal tension, due to both loneliness and cliquiness. Others reported decreased mood from about half way in and the 3rd stage of isolation.


We know that social isolation makes it harder to deal with stress, that feeling depressed, depressed our processing abilities so that it's harder to make decisions, to process information, our memory is negatively impacted, and we become more susceptible to illness, "responding differently to fighting virus."!


I was curious: how does this affect our ability to fight viruses? It seems a very important question right now! So here's what I found:


Professor John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago found that loneliness alters immune system cells, increasing inflammation and decreasing immune response. This process is known as conserved transitional response to adversity or CTRA. When paired with higher levels of norepinephrine (part of the fight/flight reaction to threat that all people are experiencing at some level during this time, whether from direct threat or from the more privileged experiences of social isolation and fear of the the unknown and the future), there is an increase in the production of a cell known as an immature monocyte in the bone marrow. These cells have high inflammation genetic expression and low antiviral genetic expression!


So, it appears that loneliness increases the likelihood of getting sick with viral infections, making it that much more important to stave off loneliness. Or to be blunt about these times, that one of most prevalent side effects of the ways we are being told to live our lives through this pandemic is something that increases likelihoods of getting a virus! that said, it doesn't increase it as much as the likelihood of getting it from seemingly unwise ways of staving off loneliness. AND there are so many ways we can actively be increasing our immune strength even if we are feeling some loneliness.


But...staving off loneliness when we are depressed, can be so much harder to do to, because our ability to mobilize ourselves for our own well-being (as I like to say) is hampered, sometimes severely.


But take heart, here are hacks for isolation & loneliness:


  • make yourself get up and MOVE! even if it's just standing up & walking to another room; it helps!

  • talk to yourself outloud (this one cracks me up a bit, because when did anyone ever suggest this as a way to increase well-being?! almost never?! Even hearing our own voice decreases the sense of aloneness, so don't forget to sing, too!

  • write letters or send cards, if you have them, to loved ones

  • reminisce with family about your experiences together

  • hike, picnic with others, do outdoor distancing parties with a few people with whatever level of protection feels right to you and everyone.

  • play music that helps you lift up to a higher, brighter vibration. The first one that comes to mind is Bobbie McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy... So...here you go!!!


  • read a novel, really trying to feel yourself being one of the characters

  • do watch parties

  • get a pet (I'm about to get a cat myself)

  • do some art form that you can get lost in (yes...even if you aren't good at it!)

  • participate in some online training or group meditations

  • become more conscious of your relationship with yourself, of creating a very loving & deep relationship with yourself (it is hugely nourishing and nurturing). It involves accepting yourself, your child parts, healing the past and feeing comfortable with the feelings that come up in you, developing more trust in your own ability to release what doesn't serve your well-being, so being able to open more and more to what does.

  • do online therapy or groups (like my tapping group...plug, plug!)

  • read to others, have them read to you; do a yoga class together; sing together.

  • What ideas do you have for hacking the experience of loneliness during this time of physical distancing?


May we all grow in wondrous and surprising ways during this time!


© 2018 Holly Timberlake, Ph.D. 

Website by Olivia Rush Design

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