We all know what it feels like to be alone in a crowd, sometimes even around a family dinner table. There’s a lingering feeling of being different to those around us or feeling that for some reason we don’t seem to belong. Since the pandemic struck, we have had to cope with physical separation as well. It has made us feel less safe around others, leaving us with a deeper sense of detachment and loss of control.
Whereas having such feelings and situations is nothing out of the ordinary occasionally, long term they can affect our mental and physical wellbeing because of the stress they put on our bodies.
What can we do if we feel alone? How can we bring back a sense of wholeness and begin to breathe a bit easier?
Stress has an adaptive function. When you perceive a threat, your nerves and hormones automatically prepare your body to fight or flee. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your energy reserves of fats and carbohydrates are released into the bloodstream as sugars and fatty acids, and the activity in your digestive tract slows down; all this stimulated at a hormonal level by adrenaline and noradrenaline (in the US they’re called epinephrine and norepinephrine.) Your survival depends on most of your energy and oxygen being supplied to the muscles; other functions are secondary.
Feeling alone is a perceived threat. As a highly social species, for thousands of years our survival depended on living in groups. Today you could get by without any human contact if you had access to shelter and sustenance, but you would have to steel yourself to counteract the effects of feeling alone.
Having been encouraged to keep socially distant and stay at home, millions of us are struggling to cope with conditions that go against our nature. Stress is rife and the situation isn’t changing. To work with your physiology and decrease the effects of stress on your body, you can choose to do exactly what it prepares you to: move. Going for a run, doing exercise at home, or walking, work brilliantly.
I especially love walking, because I get to connect with nature, even in a city. While living in Brussels last year, I would go to the surrounding parks. Not just to escape the concrete jungle, but to acquaint myself with the fauna and flora as the seasons were changing. Park Leopold was my favourite, full of Egyptian geese, coots, pigeons, swans, even a couple of cormorants. Because I went there regularly, over the course of a season I saw seven goslings grow to maturity in the willow-laced pond. Getting to know them made me feel less isolated. I became less self-absorbed by watching the cycle of life.
In this way, looking outward instead of inward makes our sense of the world expand beyond the worries of everyday life. Nature and animals are such a rich source of inspiration and playfulness. They remind us of our childhood and the wonder we felt even when looking at the most ordinary objects around us.
Childhood is key in therapy. Many of our beliefs, fears and hopes lead back there. You might have felt different to your siblings or to other children in the neighbourhood. You might have felt alone as a child, and that feeling accompanied you into adulthood. The important question lurking behind feeling different and feeling alone is: Am I loveable? To which the answer is yes. Absolutely!
Everybody is loveable. Love doesn’t make distinctions or turn away from people who feel alone or different. Love is abundant. Sadly, not everybody experienced this abundance in their childhood, or felt that they needed to do something to earn the love of their parents, teachers, peers. These initial perceptions easily become ingrained as years and decades go by, leading to persistent feelings of isolation and stress.
The nearest source of love is within you. It is never too late to change and to relate to yourself and the world in an entirely new way.
Loving yourself starts with acknowledging all your feelings, even feeling alone or feeling unlovable because they are also part of who you are at the moment. Staying with these feelings can be challenging, which is why it’s a good idea to do it with a professional who is there to guide you. However, if you practice compassion for yourself, even if you can only manage to stay with your feelings for a few seconds in the beginning, you’ll become better at it.
Once you’ve learned to stay with a feeling, you are ready to let it go for a while. Imagine the feeling as being separate from you, you can engage in conversation with it, or simply create space before it must return. Dissociating from a difficult emotion for even a moment can give you a different perspective and hope for change.
A feeling doesn’t have to define who you are or become your destiny. The self is complex and flexible. There are many aspects and parts to it, all interwoven, creating intricate patterns that make up the fabric of your life.
The seemingly tiny and isolated fabric of your life is in turn an integral part of several larger fabrics made up of their own patterns and motives: community upon community, amounting to families, nations, continents, our Earth. We’re all interconnected and dependent on each other often in subtle ways.
Social distancing should not extend past physical distancing. To survive the challenges we’re currently facing and to create sustainable patterns that will allow everyone to thrive, needs collaboration. Cultivating a feeling of isolation won’t allow you to participate fully.
Working with your physiology, seeking out beauty in nature, questioning your feelings and embarking on a path of healing and growth will give you a better chance to thrive and be an active member of your community. But you can start small. Even smiling at people going past will make you feel more connected. This is the time when we need each other most, such small gestures might be the highlight of somebody’s day.
May you be truly present in your life.
May you be healthy.
May you be safe from fear and doubt.
May you feel connected and loved.