By Jaime Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications
“Don’t just do something. Sit there,” says meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein, whose book by that title recognizes the always powerful desire of the human mind to engage. With almost anything. Nonstop.
Just try to meditate for several minutes focusing on your breathing and nothing else. Unless you’re highly practiced at this, you can’t do it. Not that you shouldn’t try. You just can’t.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from [their] inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” is a famously enduring quote from French philosopher Blaise Pascal who lived in the 1600s. Four hundred years after Pascal, studies now demonstrate that people clearly will always turn to distraction rather than be alone with their own thoughts. You may see your email inbox and the endless tweets and texts as annoyances, yet our brains are begging for distraction. So much so that in one study the preponderance of participants chose to receive electric shock rather than sit with nothing to do.
Sure, it’s funny in a way, but that’s not why I’m writing this. This natural trait possessed by all human beings is vitally important to each of our lives because this is what is also right now producing real tragedy all around us. And we need to know what’s happening to prevent tragedy from coming to each of our front doors.
The Struggle We Face
With the world in the grip of a deadly health crisis, entire nations are on lock down, and billions of people are isolated in their own homes, social distancing, quarantining, and generally avoiding restaurants and movie theaters and concerts and coffee houses – and crucially – avoiding their fellow humans. All that isolation is taking a terrible toll on our physical and mental health.
And as people and institutions and economies and families around the world suffer, our anxiety levels rise, and our hopes and dreams feel like they’re being beaten to death. There’s a massive struggle going on, and no one knows when it will end. That struggle is to survive while also making it feel like survival is worthwhile. We are sacrificing our social lives, connections with family, and our quality of life. Many are also struggling to just pay the rent and put food on the table. Others face violence in the very homes they are locked up in. Meanwhile, the virus is unrelenting, and we need to slow its spread. This new reality is deeply and tragically impacting every facet of our lives, especially our health. The unintended consequences of all this social isolation lies in very real risks to our personal survival, health risks that are both long-term and immediate.
Solitude and Loneliness are Devastating
It takes very little effort to find high quality evidence on the impact of isolation. One study published in the National Library of Medicine found isolation increased the risk of premature death from all causes while also increasing the prevalence of disease. Current evidence, in fact, indicates that heightened risk of death from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.
Though our digital world keeps us connected in some ways, the real need for human connection is clearly not fulfilled by our devices. There’s evidence of a paradox in that as our technology and online social activity connects us, it simultaneously increases feelings of loneliness. Adding to the impact of social distancing, an increasing number of Americans are now living alone, up from just 13% of households in 1960 to 29% today, according to the U.S. Census.
Additionally, 55 percent of Americans now say their mental health is suffering as a result of the pandemic. Fifty-nine percent say they fear they or a loved one will contract the virus. Fifty-eight percent say they are anxious about the uncertainty. More than half worry about losing their income. And 43 percent report being lonely.
Sleepless nights. Headaches. Stomachaches. Irregular menstruation. Depression. Anxiety. Mood swings. Anger. And nightmares. The stresses we’re under are causing physical changes in our bodies that can affect nearly every part of us. Dentists are reporting increases in patients grinding their teeth, leading to tooth fractures and jaw problems. And doctors are seeing patients with physical symptoms for which there’s no obvious cause.
The Heart of the Matter
This is a pandemic within the pandemic, and it’s hitting us hard in our hearts. Or more accurately, our heart health. Our area in southwest Wisconsin already has a high prevalence of risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, diabetes, low physical activity levels, diet, and obesity, as well as family history. And now, a study published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the incidence of cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood and can lead to heart failure) is up from 1.8% pre-pandemic to 7.8% during the COVID pandemic. Their findings tell us psychological, social, and economic stress related to COVID is putting many of us in danger of serious heart problems.
A May 2020 study in the American Journal of Physiology reports, “Confinement-induced decreases in physical activity levels and increases in sedentary behavior may provoke a rapid deterioration of cardiovascular health and premature deaths among populations with cardiovascular risks.” For people already at risk due to factors like diet, weight, smoking, or family history, our current pandemic is an unprecedented and dangerous scenario. Fitbit – the company that sells wearable devices that track physical activity levels of 30 million users – reports a large reduction in step counts ranging from 7% to 38% in almost all countries when compared to the same time period last year.
Time to Rethink Aging
For older people, the health risks are especially burdensome. They’re not only subject to increased risk of death from COVID itself but also more likely to have greatly increased risks due to chronic health factors. They’re also more likely to suffer from intense loneliness from being shut in (in care facilities and in their own homes), from feelings of worthlessness, and from ageism itself.
The isolation and loneliness and feeling of being forgotten and not cared for reduces the immune response, making them more vulnerable yet to COVID and other infections. It’s also been shown to speed the onset and development of dementia, escalate risks of heart problems (cardiomyopathy), and leave people especially vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
As for ageism, it’s a prejudice that is still virtually 100% acceptable in our culture today, and the result is society devalues the lives of older folks, making them feel like a burden and not always giving our older population the attention and love and care they need to thrive. Example: the hashtag #BoomerRemover which is trending on social media, frequently paired with disrespectful, mocking, and devaluing memes. There’s also media coverage that suggests older people are more expendable, even going so far as to imply the death of an older person is not as significant as the loss of a younger person. This is all heaped on top of our society’s never-ending devaluation of older lives in mainstream media.
My own mother, for one, has been locked inside her two room assisted living apartment since the pandemic restrictions began in March. Alone with only one or two caregivers stopping in her room on occasion to check on her. Without even being able to get her hearing aid fixed for many months, she’s been isolated to an extreme few of us could ever imagine. Thankfully, we still have FaceTime, and we can still connect on some level, so she knows there’s still someone who cares about her and loves her.
Violence at Home
If the scope of this massive hidden pandemic within the COVID pandemic weren’t enough, we are also learning of an explosion of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV). Many victims today are forced to self-isolate with their abusers at a time when support services may be on hold. Calls to domestic violence hot lines plummeted with the pandemic as victims have no safe place from which to call. Ongoing job losses, closures of schools and childcare facilities, and increases in alcohol and other substance abuse add fuel to this already raging fire. One in four women and one in 10 men experience IVP, and the violence takes on many forms. It also disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged households and marginalized communities. There seems to be little ability to address this rapidly growing problem in the middle of a pandemic.
Finding a Path Forward
We all need a plan to survive these times. The first step, say the authors of a recent article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, is to transform loneliness into solitude. Whereas loneliness is filled with terror and desolation, solitude can be peaceful and tranquil. Being at peace with ourselves is not easy for the human mind, especially in such a turbulent world. But it is possible, and here are a few helpful ways to consider:
- Set an intention to improve your relationships. Those you cherish the most, for sure, but also those at work, even those around you who you don’t know very well. Say hi from 10 feet away but also seek a sincerely deeper and personal connection. Listen to understand others and focus on developing stronger, more mutually respectful relationships.
- Get outside. Sure, it’s getting colder; just dress warm and go anyway. When you get out there, forget everything else and just be. Even if it’s only a few minutes, stop to feel the breeze, smell the air, breathe, and let your eyes rest whatever beauty you can find. If you look, you’ll find incredible natural beauty surrounding us in southwest Wisconsin. Soak it in.
- Ignore that “No pain. No gain.” Mantra. Exercise does NOT have to be difficult to be good for you. Walk when you can where you can. Stretch or do some light yoga. For those who can’t get on the floor to stretch, try chair yoga.
- Meditate. Download an app for guided meditation. Or, even just be more mindful, for example, when you’re walking or eating. Think about your body as you walk. Take your time and really taste your food. You don’t have to take big chunks of time to meditate and say “ohm” while sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position. Simply take a few moments wherever you are to breathe deeply and relax your body. A little can make a big difference.
- Got a pet? Take a few moments to gaze into their eyes. Seriously. One report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows talking to pets and connecting with them with your eyes releases hormones that relax you and even counter inflammation. Worth a try.
- Put away the screens and sit down with a good book. Go for a novel or something you’ve just always wanted to read. Reading can help you escape to another world in a healthy way.
- Eat a good healthy meal. Too often during the pandemic we’re turning to comfort foods. Slow down on sugar and unhealthy high calorie foods. Instead inject more fresh vegetables and fruit into your diet.
- Learn something new. You could take an online class or just take up a casual hobby. Use this time to grow and explore something you may really enjoy. For example, an artist once told me the secret to drawing is to sit down and draw for 15 minutes every day. According my friend, anyone who does that will develop the skill over time and be able to draw far better than they ever before imagined. Basic hobbies can also help protect against depression and other mental illnesses.
- Before you turn on the TV or pick up your phone to surf the news, stop. Just stop. Leave the devices alone, even for a few moments, and just be. Practice simply doing nothing. All your time does not have to be spent doing things. Even if you find yourself waiting for some reason – at a red light or in a checkout line – relax into it and enjoy the moment you have. Find the joy in simply being.
- Visit your doctor. Schedule a checkup, or make time to talk with a health professional about your risks, your struggles during this turbulent time, and find out how this pandemic is affecting your health. This could be the most important doctor visit you ever make. You won’t be sorry, and you may, in the end, be really thankful you did.