Quick – Fill in This Blank: “Life is like a _________”

By Monica Nolasco, Ed.D.

Given recent events, I am more certain than I have ever been before that humans are not meant to be alone. The research is replete with statistics and anecdotal testimony that declare emphatically, “Humans are designed to be with others.” However, current times have offered some real challenges with respect to how we can care for “self” by finding the balance between self-isolation and interacting with others.

Wenjuan Wu and co-authors of a paper published on ResearchGate tell us, "... isolation stress increases the peripheral tissue levels of TNF-a, which may move into the brain and be involved in the onset of depression." (Wu et al, 1999) Wu and co-authors are not alone in pointing to isolation as negatively affecting humans sociologically, biologically, and psychologically.

In her book, From Isolation to Intimacy: Making Friends without Words, Phoebe Caldwell (with Jane Horwood) talks about isolation and intimacy as being on two ends of an affinity spectrum. “On the one hand we have a state of extreme aloneness, a house in the desert disconnected from everything outside...On the other end of the scale we have intimacy, [which] implies not only closeness but¼an ability to...enter a mutual playground of the mind.”

It is essential to our well-being that we maintain balance between alone time and time with others. But, maintaining that balance does not have to be stressful (that “one more thing” we HAVE to do).

Many of you know that I write about stress quite a bit. You may remember that my studies have focused on a formal course for dealing with stress called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. What you may not know is that researching, thinking, and writing about the “s” word does not give me joy. I do so because I am devoted to mentoring others so that they can avoid the negative impacts of stress on their lives...

...and it has not been lost on me that the word itself causes negative physiological responses in all of us. When we are exposed to acute stressors, we are almost constantly reacting, rather than responding, to life situations from the platform of our sympathetic nervous system, which “functions to facilitate fight/flight behavior and promote survival in the face of challenge.” (Fleishner & Crane. 2017)

I am reminded that the parasympathetic portion of the sympathetic nervous system can be our friend as we look at this balancing act (fight-or-flight, intimacy versus alone time). The clinical psychologist Arielle Schwartz (in her article “The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Your Health”, published on her site on March 11, 2019) says: “In times of safety, the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates rest, relaxation, and digestion. However, in times of threat, the parasympathetic nervous system has a defensive mode, which can lead to symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, or depression.”

Can we shift our perspective and focus on the “sympathy” in the sympathetic nervous system and the “defender” in the parasympathetic system? I think we can. We can make the sympathetic nervous system our partner in facing the negative experiences life presents us by focusing on self-care.

The Chinese use the word “wei ji” when they refer to “stress”. “wei” means “stressful situation”; “ji” means “opportunity”. So, when we put these two notions together, we can see that stressful times offer us the chance for new learning and new growth.

I propose, then, a new word to replace the “s” word – an acronym, in fact: Let’s call it what it is – LIFE (learning intrinsically from experiences). When you shift your focus, you see that life is not so much stressful as it is a series of opportunities to experience an array of situations and moments of discovery.

Remember Forrest Gump? The character in this movie quotes his mother: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Life as a box of chocolates offers us all sorts of different tastes, some to our liking; others we may need some help to acquire and still others we may choose to pass up. up. The point is that we can’t always control what happens (shelter-in-place, for instance), but we can choose our response.

I am offering you some tips for maintaining your balance in a time of shelter. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these recommendations have the same focus – taking care of your “self”:

  1. Take care of you first so that you have enough oxygen (read “energy”) to care for others
  2. Balance “together time” with alone time to go within by meditating.
  3. Balance sitting meditation with movement meditation (soft yoga or a meditative walk).
  4. Take an Epsom salt bath to soothe aches from tension and inflammation.
  5. Go outside to connect with Nature. Harvard Medical School recommends going into the woods to relax your mind and, if you can’t go outside, bring the outside inside with plants and audio tracks.
  6. Talk on the phone with your loved ones. (Not everyone has access to videoconferencing, and some may even be tired of it.)
  7.  Dance, sing, and laugh. Listening to music can energize the lethargic and calm the overextended. And you might remember the column from Readers’ Digest: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
  8. Practice positive thinking by visualizing a better place and happier times.
  9. Treat yourself for being positive about LIFE. My favorite treat is chocolate. What’s yours?
  10. Do something fun every day – just ‘cause.
  11. Sleep well. Sleep is the best restorative for the human body and mind.
  12. Eat healthy and consciously.

References:

Caldwell, P., & Horwood, J. (2007). From isolation to intimacy: Making friends without words. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Fleshner, M., & Crane, C. R. (2017). Exosomes, DAMPs and miRNA: Features of stress physiology and immune homeostasis. Trends in Immunology, 38(10), 768-776.

Schwartz, A. (2019, March 11). “The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Your Health”.
https://drarielleschwartz.com/the-parasympathetic-nervous-system-and-your-health/

Harvard Health. (2018, July). “Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature”.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature

Wu, Wenjuan et al. (1999, February). Involvement of TNF-alpha in enhancement of invasion and metastasis of colon 26-L5 carcinoma cells in mice by social isolation stress. Oncology Research Featuring Preclinical and Clinical Cancer Therapeutics. Publisher: Cognizant Communication Corporation. pp. 461 –469.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12467443_Wu_W_Yamaura_T_Murakami_K_Ogasawara_M_Hayashi_K_Murata_J_Saiki_IInvolvement_of_TNF-alpha_in_enhancement_of_invasion_and_metastasis_of_colon_26-L5_carcinoma_cells_in_mice_by_social_isolation_stress_Onc