Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.

Some Commonsensical Coronavirus Advice From a Doctor

If you have symptoms and are wondering whether or not to go to the doctor or E.R., watch this video.

Basically – for most people – staying at home and calling your doctor for extra confirmation about what to do is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Heading to a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital with relatively mild symptoms can a) expose you to other illnesses b) increase the chances that you’ll infect others and c) contribute to the overburdening of a healthcare system which needs to make room for people who are most in need of medical attention. If your symptoms are relatively mild, and they aren’t deteriorating into alarm signs (which he describes in the video), your best bet is to rest at home, call your doctor for additional advice if necessary, and take other precautions (like washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, coughing into your elbow, avoiding crowded and confined spaces, and avoiding close contact with others).

You mean there’s hope for me?

“No worries: Neuroticism may have a healthy upside” – says this article.

But this seems to be the case only if you’re both neurotic and conscientious. Because maybe by being conscientious you’re giving yourself a sense of control and security as you confront life’s many uncertainties?

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

(Image credit: Psychology today – and if you click on the image you’ll find an article with a look at neuroticism and conscientiousness in another context. Funnily, this article introduces us to “neurotic people” and “conscientious folks” – what about people who are both?)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Why is it so hard to walk away?

Last week one of my nephews was amusing himself by jumping up and down on his dog’s squeaky chew toy. *Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak…*

His mother asked him to stop.

He did, for a few seconds, and then started again. *Squeak, squeak, squeak…*

Again, his mother asked him to stop.

He stepped off the toy, but then touched it with his toes.

“Just walk away from it!” his mother snapped. “Just turn around and walk away!”

He turned away from the chew toy, then back to it, then away again, the struggle visible. Finally he laughed a little and walked away. His mother nudged the chew toy to the other side of the room.

Watching this, I thought, Why is it so hard to walk away? Children on average have poorer impulse control than adults, but I’m also thinking of how many Serious Adult Problems can be avoided or at least mitigated if we were better able to literally walk away from something that’s bad for us or for other people. Turn around and walk away from the dessert table at the buffet, from the convenience store where we buy cigarettes, from the person who’s spoiling for a fight, from the person who lied to us and defrauded us before, from the long T.V. lineup or unending stream of websites that we’ve been hooked on for long sedentary hours, etc. etc.

Make it a habit, as hard as it is initially, to turn around and walk away. Easier said than done, I know. That first moment is the hardest – the moment you have to first stop, get up or turn around; it’s so hard that most of the time we don’t attempt it, even if we know it’s good for us to walk away, whether to take a necessary break or to avoid something or someone completely. But once the action is initiated, it becomes easier to follow through. And with enough repetition maybe that first moment, in which we catch ourselves and change direction, gets easier.

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Why am I so…?

On Google yesterday I typed in the phrase “Why am I so…” and waited to see what suggestions autocomplete would offer to finish the phrase (yes I was procrastinating, I admit it). Here are the top 10:

Why am I so…
1) tired
2) ugly
3) gassy
4) lazy
5) fat
6) depressed
7) hungry
8) itchy
9) bloated
10) cold

I did this little exercise out of curiosity about the kinds of questions we commonly ask of ourselves (at least on Google); from what I’ve read about the autocomplete algorithm, it draws on the search activities of the millions and millions of people using Google, along with phrases and keywords in Google-indexed web pages. (It could have drawn on my personal search history as well, but as I was logged out of Google and had disabled Web History a while ago, I’m not sure my own Googling affected the outcome much.)

Regardless, there are many, many webpages out there directly addressing these queries. So, what do we find on the internet in answer to them? Some good advice, some terrible advice, some people commiserating, others jeering. And there’s anguish. Lots of anguish. Our problems can consume our mental energy, and possibly our lives.

A few of the search terms are more blatantly medical than others (bloated, itchy, gassy) and more superficial; we want to find out why we have these symptoms and whether we should be alarmed, and how we can put an end to the unpleasantness and get some relief – but being gassy is rarely taken as a sign that we’re fundamentally defective. Others could definitely be medical and a result of certain lifestyle choices (tired, fat, etc.) but there are also deeper issues at work there; the possible answers are more complex and get at who we are (or who we think we are) as people.

Not that we’re always looking for answers. We want to work on ourselves, but sometimes we aren’t ready yet to make the effort. What we might hope to find – in addition to, or as a substitute for, any concrete suggestions for improvement – are opportunities to:
1) Confirm that we’re not alone. So many forums exist out there for people with depression for instance, who understand one another and maybe feel less alone as a result.

2) Absorb some sympathy. I don’t just mean in a “poor me” dramatically self-pitying “nobody has it this bad” sort of way (though depending on the individual there might be some of that) but just genuine warmth and support. Maybe we lack that from people in our lives.

3) Get encouragement. Doing anything about laziness or tiredness or other problems can be daunting. What we need are inspiring stories and kind words. This might give us a boost now or give us hope for the future, even if we feel as if we can’t manage the effort at the present time.

4) Satisfy our curiosity. We want to see what life is like for other people. That might include a comparison between us and them (e.g. they have it so much easier than I do… they might have succeeded in overcoming their problems, but I know for sure that I won’t).

5) Have our own suspicions or perceptions, however pessimistic, confirmed. There’s a kind of grim satisfaction we get from hearing that what we’ve thought all along is true: we’re screwed – by genetics, by poor choices, by any number of factors – and it will be terribly difficult to get well and turn our lives around. So there. If we can confirm that we’re hopeless, it means we don’t have to do anything, because nothing we’ll do matters. At least, this is what we tell ourselves.

6) Stall. We’ll find nothing that we don’t already know. We’ve done this web search before, multiple times, combed through dozens of sites. We’re searching again (and again) to no real purpose. Googling our problems gives us the illusion of doing something meaningful to improve our lives, when it’s really time for us to start acting on what we know. Are we delaying any changes we need to make because we’re afraid we’ll fail? Because the effort is too great? Are we using these self-help searches to sabotage ourselves? Maybe.

People are more than capable of using an opportunity to get better as a way to prevent themselves from getting better. We’re masters at both irony and self-sabotage.

You know which one broke my heart most? ‘Ugly’ (“why am I so ugly?”). Looking through some of the search results you see people who’ve already made up their mind that yes, they’re ugly. It’s an incontrovertible truth to them. Most have been repeatedly told they’re ugly, in subtle and not-remotely-subtle ways, and they live in anguish. Offline they may try to mask that anguish and carry on as usual, but it eats away at them.

It gives you tremendous pain to look at yourself and see ugliness. To feel it as others stare at you. To be convinced that you’ll be spurned and alone for the rest of your life. Unless you do something… but what? If you get plastic surgery, will you love yourself? What about new clothes? Will you be loved then? The self-perception of ‘ugliness’ is never only about your pronounced nose, your belly fat, your varicose veins, your acne, your asymmetrical face, or a combination of all of those… it’s a deep feeling of wrongness crawling through you.

The feeling is so deep and pervasive, so very much a part of how we define ourselves, that we think it can’t be anything but true. It comes to dominate everything.

“Why am I so ugly” echoes in some of the others (‘fat,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘tired.’) Looking at ourselves and seeing a lump. A nothing. No beauty, no spirit, just a blob of inertia and pain. Other people can hurt us and do their best to grind us down. But when they’re not around, we take over and keep at it. We’re deeply convinced that there’s no other life for us, no real and lasting alternatives to the state we’re stuck in. We might want to change, and sometimes are overcome with a desire to make the effort, but it gives way to a belief that we’ll never be able to do it. Even if we think we can, we’ll likely fail, and any failure will prove once and for all that we really are stuck. (Failure proves no such thing, but it’s a convincing lie that we often buy into). In any case the concept of who we are is fixed in our mind and it colors everything in our life.

The things we miss out on when our minds are overrun with these thoughts. There’s so much to think about, to enjoy, to wonder about, to love in this world, to fight for, to care about, to learn and explore and live for. It’s a tragedy when our self-perceptions prevent us from seeing this goodness, this vast potential, and keep us from believing that we can ever be a part of it.

Much of our mental energy is consumed by our problems. Sometimes the solutions are relatively straightforward, if it’s a solution we’re really after (Gassy? Don’t eat certain kinds of food. Itchy? Here, try this cream.) Other times the problem is more complex. And our attempts at solving it can set us back further. Instead of working on our ambitions and projects, enjoying our hobbies, nurturing our relationships, cultivating our minds – in short, doing all the things that could give us a richer life and help us ease our pain – we tear ourselves apart in the process of trying to make ourselves better.

It can be useful to find a name for a particular problem. For instance, if we figure out that our tiredness, emptiness, and lack of pleasure might be depression, then calling it ‘depression’ – knowing it for what it is – can be the first step towards managing it so that we can restore ourselves to a healthier life. But when our negative labels feel permanent and all-encompassing (Fat? I’m nothing but fat. Lazy? Yep, can’t do a thing. Ugly? Everyone thinks so, and that’s all they see when they look at me) then it becomes much more difficult to believe that we could ever see ourselves differently – that we could ever be different, happier, more contented, and lead a rich, varied, meaningful life, where we aren’t weighed down so strongly by one particular definition of ourselves.

Understanding and addressing our perceptions of ourselves, particularly when they’re so cruelly negative, is necessary for good mental and physical health, and for a strong life well-lived; our thoughts are fundamental to the kind of life we’ll experience. Wrestling with self-defeating perceptions can be a lifelong struggle, but hopefully one that won’t end in resigned defeat, grim confirmation that we were “right about ourselves” all along.

On that note, here’s a related post I found today: 7 Common Habits of Unhappy People.

Assessing total cognitive burden

Here’s an interesting post to read about assessing and possibly reducing your risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.

Some questions posed there:

Do you have ongoing stress in your life, or have experienced significant amounts of stress at some period during middle-age?

Do you rarely engage in exercise?

Do you spend most evenings blobbed out in front of the TV?

Reading through the possible risk factors you see some that you can’t control, such as genes and family history and your early childhood circumstances (for instance if you grew up in a very stressful home), but the list also emphasizes modifiable risk factors: amount of exercise, drinking habits, sleep habits, mental stimulation, etc. How all of those interact is still an open question. But when you think about it there never seems to be one trick, one magic way (or magic pill), that improves your long-term cognitive and physical health (which are closely intertwined). Instead it’s about making your life as healthy as possible all around, in multiple areas.