“What’s on your mind today?”
“I think I feel lonely.”
-Patients and therapists in conversations all around the world
My friend Sarah and I have this long-standing joke argument about dogs wearing sweaters. Sarah loves to dress her pups. I am staunchly in the camp of those who believe dogs are already dressed in an adequate coat, therefore they do not need sweaters.
Or raincoats (Insert eye-roll emoji.).
It’s a joke, obviously. I clearly don’t care how Sarah dresses her pups. If I’m being totally honest, sometimes they even look cute in their Halloween costumes. (I mean, you’ll never catch my dogs in human clothes, but I can appreciate other dogs’ high fashion.)
Up until March, this was only a silly thing that may prompt her to share a picture or funny quip on Facebook and me to respond with a quick thumb up or laugh face as I scroll mindlessly by.
Lately though, I find I am paying particular attention to my FB feed, looking for Sarah’s dressed dogs.
Not only is there some joy to be found in a german shorthaired pointer with a jaunty sweater, but I am craving the connection that comes from the banter back and forth between us on these threads.
We started quarantine with a zoom call. Sarah and I, and our two other high school besties. We planned that call to chat about the strangeness that was unfolding in March. We promised to keep it up.
We also missed our annual summer weekend where we gather on the Jersey Shore and laugh at therapeutic levels for three days.
We tried to plan it again in the fall, thinking maybe we were heading back to normal. Then, cases spiked and The Jersey Shore said if you visited you had to quarantine. It seemed a bad idea again to gather indoors again.
So, we didn’t.
Time has marched on, which can sometimes trick us into thinking things are going back to “normal”.
Indeed as normal as some days may feel, times are still strange and we can often feel alone. I hear it in my office all day long from people of all places and stations in life: I feel weird. I feel overwhelmed. I feel lonely.
As many of us know, loneliness can creep in even when we’re in a crowded room, or house as the 2020 case may be. This feeling of loneliness can come from the isolation many of us are experiencing as a result of stress from pandemics or social unrest or election-whatever.
It may not be as bad as March, when we really couldn’t go anywhere and didn’t really know anything. But now that we are back to doing some things, and the world still feels unstable, we are faced anew with the holes left by those we still can’t see, or touch. How many times have you resisted the urge to hug someone in the last six months? How many times have you wondered what comes next?
That is isolating.
So, what do we do?
First, know you’re not alone.
Even if you live alone, there are people all around you going through much of the same thing. Find them. They’re in the next apartment, or the house down the street, or online. They are here and they need to hear from you too.
Second, lean into connection, any connection.
Maybe that looks like a daily stroll over your friend’s Facebook page looking for reasons to chat about her well-dressed dogs.
You could plan a regularly scheduled zoom happy hour with your networking group, or sorority sisters or neighbors you used to have Friday breakfast with before work. Perhaps joining a group online that you were always interested in or maybe never knew about, but have seen recently.
The two networking groups I belong to have become more like family than colleagues since we all got locked down in March. I have written before about the potential power of online friendships. Now is the time to find your own.
Three, reach out and touch someone.
If you are lucky enough to have people in your home, they are likely driving you a wee bit bananas by now. Even if you love them greatly, forced time together, under stress, is not for the faint of heart. Think back to what I said about feeling alone in a house full of people.
The solution here may feel counterintuitive but stay with me. First, take advantage of the physical closeness by, well, taking advantage of the physical closeness. Hug more. For longer.
For real, a 20 second hug (which feels awkwardly long!) can signal to your nervous system that you are safe.
So, all those stress hormones that are flying around your body and making you lose sleep, and feel overwhelmed and cry at weird times? That is your body thinking it is in danger. If you hug someone for 20 seconds (while relaxing into it) that will tell your body it is safe and reset your nervous system to its rest and digest state.
You can literally hug yourself calm.
If you’re not up for hugs, shift your focus to the good that comes from closeness. Sometimes closeness can feel suffocating, but sometimes, if we pay attention, it can feel pretty good.
Think of snuggling on the couch sharing a favorite show together or chatting about something non-stressful over bowls of cereal or mugs of hot coffee. Those moments feel warm and peaceful if we pay attention to them.
Focus on those times. Soak in those moments. FEEL them when they happen.
This time has forced us all to be more intentional about everything; our choices, our relationships, our time. Connection is an intention that deserves your attention right now.
Find your people. Make time for them. Lean in to connecting, any way you can.
P.S. Looking for more parenting guidance and tips for self-care? Check out From Chaos to Calm a guided training to help you feel better in this tough season.