Curling up in a Covid World (and yes, taking back control)

I imagine many of us are feeling unmoored, lost, adrift, at sea. 2020 was not meant to go this way. We weren't meant to see our lives turned upside down.

Curling up in our Covid World

There are days where the last thing you feel like doing is putting pen to paper, let alone writing down your thoughts and emotions. There are the days we want nothing more than to curl up in the shape of a rubber ball. Especially when life is unmistakably bad, as it is for hundreds of millions worldwide.

One human tendency at times like these is to procrastinate or exit our lives. We can stare at screens, updating and scrolling down, be it on our laptops or on our smartphones. We seek to avoid the realities we’re confronted with in the world.

I procrastinate. Badly.

I can indulge in watching countless episodes of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, imagining the pre-Covid world and envisaging the one to come after it. But as a recent thought-provoking essay in The Hindu suggests, procrastination is a quite human response to dealing with undesirable truths. We procrastinate, the theory goes, to defer our inevitable date with the dread we see – in our lives and in the wider world.

“Perhaps we are all anxious because no matter how hard we scroll, how incessantly we post, and how intently we binge-watch, we do not have the capacity to deny the state of the world”

The passage of time

Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine argues that it would be easier to ask what is wrong with us rather than what is wrong with social media platforms such as Twitter.

In the Hindu essay, Mathangi Krishnamurthy explains how Richard Seymour makes the controversial argument that “compulsive participation in social media, whether as participant, spectator or addict to the dopamine loops of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ is not due to a need for pleasure but a symptom of the death drive, a giving in to the ‘chronophage’ or the ‘monster that eats time.'”

In other words, we stay online to pass time, for real time in the real world is fraught and cannot be passed so easily.

I’m reminded of Gustav Holst’s Saturn movement in his Planets orchestral suite, the bringer of old age with its echoes of ominous sounding cymbals.

Loneliness is rife

It’s hardly radical or new to declare this ‘the age of loneliness’. Organisations such as The Campaign to End Loneliness have been operating for a long time. The United Kingdom government has a Minister dedicated to tackling loneliness and an accompanying strategy.

There’s an impressive but still developing body of literature on the characteristics of loneliness and its psychology.

Standard interventions to tackle feelings of chronic loneliness (1 in 10 older people reportedly experiences loneliness often or always to the extent that it has become chronic) include mindfulness, positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapies.

We know from reports like the Campaign to End Loneliness’s work on the psychology of loneliness that feeling lonely can shape how lonely people feel and think. Lonely people can report feeling a sense of being abandoned, a sense of not being understood by others and a sense of feeling lost or helpless.

That’s why I’m so curious to learn about the health benefits and improvements in well-being that people can experience from writing: writing down their feelings, keeping a journal, possibly even narrating their story. Regaining and claiming control in a situation where they may otherwise feel they’ve lost what control they had.

Taking back control (not that slogan again!)

If loneliness is rife (and along with feelings of anxiety, possibly growing), then what action can we take?

First, let me share insights from two pieces I read this week.

Loneliness can see us lose whichever modifying tendencies we possess to see the best in people and the wider world we inhabit. We risk becoming not just physically distant (and indeed being alone isn’t a precondition of loneliness) but emotionally distant or disconnected from others, be it family members, people in our community, or groups we don’t ordinarily relate to. It’s no one’s fault! I’ve experienced loneliness and still can. The point is loneliness can do things to us we don’t like.

German Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote on the human condition after the horrors of the Second World War. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt argued that totalitarianism has its roots in loneliness.

I don’t intend to say too much here (the excellent Aeon article linked to above explains far better than I can what Hannah Arendt meant to say, positing that loneliness can ultimately lead to totalitarianism). But along with an interesting feature on loneliness and populism that complements the Aeon article in the UK’s Financial Times, I’m convinced that for all the individual-level impacts of loneliness, its the ramifications across society that sees us needing to address the problem with the utmost urgency.

Let me clarify though, being a lonely person doesn’t make you in any way wrong or mean, or anything like that. The point is that being lonely can make us vulnerable. We can fall prey to people with bad and bigger motives.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic; loneliness is somewhat inevitable with new lockdowns. What action can we take?

We can encourage people to regain some semblance of control.

We can humanise and share our concerns, make our needs ‘social’. Among many other steps, and please bear with me as I know this will take some explaining, but we can tell our stories.

If we choose to, we can write.

When we feel unmoored

I imagine many of us are feeling unmoored, lost, adrift, at sea. 2020 was not meant to go this way. We weren’t meant to see our lives turned upside down. We are unbalanced, destabilised; choose your favourite adjective.

Writing all this down doesn’t deal with or tackle the root causes of any of this, well, in the case of Covid, it can’t.

But we can come face to face with the things we’re mulling over, tormenting ourselves with, ‘catastrophising’. There, in plain old black and white. On our pads of paper and on our computers.

I’m not now referring to the writing interventions underpinned by psychotherapeutic research in ‘dignity writing’ for terminally ill patients or the ‘expressive writing’ that is known to benefit people who have experienced severe stress or trauma. An earlier blog-post of mine briefly introduces some of those techniques.

I’m talking about the fact that the second wave of this pandemic brings unpalatable truths under the spotlight once more: our lives on this earth are finite; we have such little control; our contributions to history can only ever be infinitesimally small. So what do we have control over?

In fact, more than we sometimes realise.

Coaching and writing: two tools

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) which I integrate into my coaching practice, can help us control quite a lot in fact.

It can help us to reset and rethink the way we deal with external shocks and help us become more agile in a world of ever-rapid change.

It is even said that is can help us reframe our stories, how we see our lives and how we want to engage with the world, acknowledging the challenges but also drawing on new resources to move forwards with hope. It may sound a little corny, and at times it is. But it can help, and in common with writing, it can help us become masters of our own stories and emotions – our very own narrators set about delivering new plots.

I like the SCORE model used by NLP practitioners. It helps us to look at the symptoms of things going wrong in our lives or causing us pain; helps us to consider some of the possible causes of why we’re experiencing that symptom; sees us set a desired outcome or state we’d rather work towards; connects us to the resources within and inside the wider community that can help us move forward; and enables us to envisage and put into action what will be needed to get us closer to our destination.

A change in perspective

A change in mindset or perspective can do wonders. Did you ever hear that for some people who experience stress, it actually doesn’t harm them as much as it can harm other people, simply because they have a mindset that tells them stress isn’t unnatural and isn’t something to get, well, too stressed about. In this spectacular video from Ted Talks, Kelly McGonigal talks about how stress can actually be our friend. Now that’s where NLP can come in handy. And funnily enough, writing.

Writing – especially when times are tough – can help us find meaning in confusing and shocking events. Oftentimes it can help us come to realise certain things about ourselves, especially when we engage in life writing or what is called autobiographical storytelling, which I blogged about here.

Jolene Hill, Founder of Your Life Talks in Australia, also highlights how autobiographical storytelling can help us to find purpose, even later on in our lives or when illness means our time might be short.

I agree.

If I’m sounding evangelical about the power of life writing, it’s because I am. I’ll keep on proselytising!

Soon I will be launching my new life histories service to complement my life coaching service. Please do look out for future posts where I will share an exciting new product.

In a future blog-post I am going to be sharing more details on my forthcoming life histories service to complement my coaching services. This will be a platform to enable people to share and write their own stories especially with a view to recording their life stories as a keepsake for them and their families or loved ones.

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