One of the things that make painful situations hard to bear is that, in the moment, we don’t know when they’re ever going to end. It’s the uncertainty beyond the pain that really makes us panic. I know that in times of pain – like getting stitches or staples removed, or in the middle of a severe headache – I lose sense of time a space. It feels like I’ll be immersed in this same feeling forever. It feels like I’ll never get to experience feeling normal ever again.
The same is true of emotional pain. Feelings like loneliness, isolation, despair, and anxiety can be downright painful. In fact, research shows that psychological and emotional pain happen in the same brain areas as physical pain – meaning that sometimes, it’s hard for us to tell the difference between a breakup and a real punch to the gut. And one of the most damaging emotional experiences is that of loneliness. Several studies have shown that loneliness exacerbates pain and can contribute to chronic health problems, like heightened levels of heart disease.
So, in the time of COVID-19, how do we fight the pain of loneliness that feels like it might last forever? Well, if you’re trying to fight isolation head on, you can try some of the strategies I posted about earlier this week. But what about those times where the isolation just envelops you? What about those quiet moments in your day where there isn’t energy or ability to engage in those proactive strategies to keep yourself busy?
I try not to get too much of my wisdom from reality TV, but something a contestant said on The Great British Baking show really stuck with me. The contestant, juggling tasks in the midst of an extremely stressful final countdown, said, “Just five more minutes. I can do anything for 5 minutes.” And I realized something. That’s the mantra I’ve subconsciously used to get me through so much of the adversity in my life.
Every time I’ve needed to get through something I’ve broken it down into smaller, bite sized pieces that I felt like I could tolerate. If I start thinking, “I can’t take this loneliness and uncertainty,” I have to stop and tell myself, “But you can stand it for five minutes.” And if five minutes is too much I break it down to 1 minute. And if one minute is too much, I break it down to 30 seconds. “I can do anything for 30 seconds.” And what I’ve come to realize is that those 30 seconds ALWAYS pass. The pain always subsides because pain is temporary. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying to deny that you are hurting. The distress is very real, and denying that won’t help anybody. But the helpful thing is to keep perspective.
This isolation period feels like it might go on forever, but it won’t. It’s temporary just like every other adversity you and I have faced. And we have to remind ourselves of that – over and over if necessary. This is temporary. This will pass. You are stronger than your circumstances. If you can, imagine yourself on the other side of this hell.
Because somewhere on the horizon there is hope, even if (right now) your brain tells you there isn’t.