Simple ways to observe and challenge our emotional skeletons during times of social isolation

April 18, 2020

* Peter Paraskevopoulos is a Psychologist.  He works as a High School Debate Coach in Athens, Greece. 

 

The best form of insurance in dealing with one’s unhelpful belief system is the rapid pace of everyday life. One could therefore argue that social isolation is unique in so far as motivating people to either challenge unhelpful thinking patterns of theirs or become entangled in an emotional roller-coaster of loneliness and self-pity. Even though plenty of people out there have made generous attempts to introduce those who might be suffering from mental health issues to various online fora or counseling support lines, the uncomfortable truth is that in order to come out healthier and more empowered from Covid-19 social isolation, everyone first needs to exercise self-discipline and personal responsibility.

 

Becoming dead-focused on self-discipline is key since it’s quite easy for individuals to maintain a cocoon of false affection or self-esteem when they are surrounded by others, whether co-workers, social relationships or family. In reality what social isolation does is that it exposes gaps in self-love and self-respect which in the vast majority of cases is the product of growth and a sense of contributing to one’s ideal state that they envision themselves in.

First, a disclaimer that the purpose of this article isn’t to serve as some form of panacea for every pre-existing condition out there, as someone who has suffered with mild depression with anxious features, self-help is never a substitute to concrete therapy. Instead, this article seeks to provide an outline for a self-restructuring plan that one needs to build for themselves which is usually made out of the following components: a) Identifying unhelpful thinking patterns b) Exercising cognitive flexibility c) Rehearsing self-control and slowly replacing cognitive distortions.

 

To begin with, plenty of people find it quite easy to stick their heads in the sand during a period of economic anxiety by resorting to substance abuse, oversleeping, overindulging themselves in social media usage and catastrophizing. My initial response also included some of these patterns with the direct result of feeling hopeless, disinterested and anxious of losing the support system of key people in my life, especially that of my girlfriend. The key in dealing with prolonged disengagement from others is therefore to become less dependent on them by identifying what triggers various insecurities.

In order to do so, there are several tools at everyone’s disposal regardless of how helpless they might initially feel. The first is really practical and involves writing a strict daily regimen of activities that are split between provoking enjoyment as well as personal growth. Adhering to it includes evaluating at the end of the day why certain activities might not have been followed as well as rating the degree of satisfaction with each of them. Simultaneously, writing a journal of thoughts that oftentimes race through one’s head is also really useful since it helps track their evolution. Finally, for those who might not be motivated to do so on their own, asking a friend or a spouse to hold them accountable each day might seem annoying at first, however it can really make a difference.

 

The second step involves identifying unhelpful thinking patterns via the above tools. Examples might include feeling rejected when others don’t go along with your plans, blaming others for your current financial condition, or exercising various cognitive biases without first gathering information when communicating with others. Whenever you encounter these don’t be afraid to first express the anger or sadness but then also to write them down. Then ask yourself what you reckon is holding you back and remember that if we acted on each and every one of our thoughts, the results would be disastrous. Social isolation is thus unique in so far as it allows us to verbalize negative thoughts without being judged by others.

 

Learning to exercise cognitive flexibility is probably the most difficult step in the process since it includes reframing thoughts that might be causing distress. In order to do so one first usually needs to establish a relaxed state of mind. Various options exist here from mindfulness exercises on YouTube to first performing low-duration high intensity exercise. Now in order to reframe unhelpful thoughts one can separate them into two different categories: a) ones that are recurring and distressing b) ones that aren’t recurring but might cause distress towards others. In the first category try to identify whether these thoughts are a product of realistic imminent threats to your wellbeing such as needing to feed one’s family and write down an action plan of the options at your disposal. If these thoughts however are the product of irrational fears or making assumptions regarding situations it’s then suitable to try to identify those fears or assumptions and examine ways to deal with them. Indicative mechanisms could include asking yourself whether you require more information to make an informed decision about someone’s motivations, being very direct when it comes to your needs in social interactions or replacing fears with positive alternative visualizations of those fears. In my case instead of fearing missing out on my dream to teach psychology, I’ve visualized alternative ways to reach that dream. When it comes to thoughts that cause distress towards others don’t be afraid to apologize about things that happened prior to social isolation. Accept your flaws and ask others of what they want.

 

Ultimately, cognitive flexibility can lead to nowhere unless it is rehearsed daily. Allocate 5-10 minutes each day on the harmful thoughts that you might have and repeat logical alternatives of these. The brain is quite a fickle thing in so far that it can be trained to think in certain ways, with emotions then loyally tagging along. Remember, that you don’t need others to grow, social isolation is a golden opportunity to follow online seminars, intensively meditate, appreciate helpful qualities of oneself and most importantly, displacing one’s focus on their own feelings to trying to help others. Whether you are skilled with words or frying pans, the demand for volunteering and people who need help online is tremendous, therefore allocating some of your time daily on helping others establishes a sense of self-worth that isn’t comparable to any physical hug or kiss.

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