Public health precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have locked down entire regions of the world, keeping people in their homes and away from other people; but these measures come with their own harmful consequences that have not been properly accounted for.
Social isolation and loneliness are some of the biggest threats to physical and mental health people are facing today, increasing the risk for premature mortality at a rate that exceeds many of the leading health indicators; it’s even more detrimental to health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol abuse disorder, and it’s twice as physically and mentally damaging as obesity.
Study after study reveals that social isolation wreaks havoc on mental, cognitive, and physical health. It’s linked to depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity at every stage of life. Across every race and social class, social isolation is associated with premature death from every cause.
The impact of social isolation combined with the immense stressors of rampant job insecurity, a severely depressed economy, and widespread fear of getting sick is a recipe for making our population anxious, depressed, and sick--consequences that will reach far beyond this pandemic.
But there’s good news!
There’s a real healing power that comes with learning to be content alone, and it starts with putting the right thoughts into your head. Positivity is a choice; it’s a reflex--a skill anyone can develop with time and energy.
Gratitude covers over a multitude of negative thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. When truly in a state of gratitude, emotions like fear, sadness, bitterness, anger, resentment, and anxiety literally cannot exist.
One of the easiest ways to bring up feelings of gratitude is to make a list of the things you’re grateful for. Don’t stop there. Make your gratitude come alive until you can literally feel it coursing through your body.
Writing a heartfelt thank you note is another great way to make gratitude well up inside of you. You’ll need to go beyond generic platitudes for this type of gratitude activity; make your appreciation come alive in your words. Serving others is also shown to make people happier, so if you want to pass along this note to its subject, you’ll get an added boost of positivity--but the act of writing the note in and of itself will cultivate positive emotions.
If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, consider how you’re framing things up; is there something you’re counting as a negative that could bring you feelings of gratitude through reframing?
Feelings of bitterness, anger, and “why me,” counteract growth. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that you are experiencing hardship--in fact, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, for only then can you address those feelings and transform them into something that serves you; it’s when you allow yourself to identify as a victim of circumstance that learning and growth are actively stunted by toxic thought patterns.
Beginning to reframe painful and uncomfortable situations as opportunities for growth and learning does something drastic not only to your mindset, but also to your potential. Without positive reframing, we are often viewing situations in a way that limit our ability to truly capitalize on the opportunities to learn and grow from hardship.
It’s amazing how the world around you seems to transform before your very eyes when you develop the habit of positive reframing. When you begin to see hardships as opportunities, you’ll begin to see opportunities arise all around you. The reverse is also true: if you are seeing hardships as problems, you’ll find problems all around you.
With positive reframing, situations that once would have left you feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and defeated suddenly become exciting. Instead of saying “woe is me, my life is so hard,” you’ll find yourself almost reflexively saying “what can I learn from this,” “what amazing things are going to come out of this experience.” You’ll begin to realize that some of life’s best lessons are forged in fire; that trials, tests, and failure are not something to be afraid of, but to embrace.
If you look throughout history, you’ll see that people have always had an amazing ability to find a way through even the most difficult and extreme situations; people in nazi concentration camps, in the roughest prisons, in abusive homes, have been resilient in the midst of horrible circumstances.
Viktor Frankl wrote about his experience in a nazi concentration camp and finding meaning in even the most horrendous situations: “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms--to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
No, you’re likely not going to experience anything in your life like a concentration camp, but the same principle applies and can help you persevere and gain valuable lessons from your own challenges in life.
Many of us get caught up in the pursuit of happiness and forget to be content where we are; “if I just get [a new job, house, pair of shoes] [away from this person] [out of quarantine], then I’ll be happy.” Looking externally for happiness will never bring peace or contentment, especially because we often cannot control these external circumstances. What we can control is our mindset. We can choose to see things as positive or negative, as opportunities or as problems. If your mindset is right, the facts of your situation won’t have the power to dictate how you feel.
As you begin to adopt this mindset, it’s important to focus yourself on one day, one moment at a time. When stress, pain, or fear rise up, take it as an opportunity to realign your mind with the truth: “I am in charge of how I react to this--in a way that serves me, or doesnt.” Talk to your inner shame, fear, bitterness, etc., and remind yourself that you are in control of how you feel, even when your circumstances may be telling you to despair.
Learning to adopt this type of mindset is a process, and it won’t happen overnight. Many of you will have to fight against strong neural pathways that have predetermined your thoughts and reactions to things in the past, but if you keep at it, positivity will become a habit rather than something you have to work at. Success is a marathon of consistency walked out one day at a time. Keep your reasons for succeeding in front of you--having a longer, happier, and healthier life--and this process will be deeply rewarding.