Loneliness. Solitude. Alone.

Such words often stir feelings deep in our souls and hearts.  As humans we tend to avoid such feelings and experiences.  And yet we have had to often face all three more deeply this year than others.  What do they mean?  Are they the same?  How are they different?  Sometimes we find we want to just brush over the words and feelings that pop up and run to find someone and be busy.  Yet some philosophies, spirituality and philosophy among them, encourage solitude at times.  And in solitude we are alone.   

Depending on the definition, loneliness is either physical isolation or the feeling of sadness over not having people around.  Or, from a philosophical and psychological perspective, it is a feeling of having insufficient relationships or accessibility to others to meet the needs a person has at that time.  It may simply be a need for companionship and with Covid-19 we cannot always get together as we’d like because it competes with need to stay at home more.  

Solitude is defined as the less painful part of not having people available – being alone and enjoying that and finding comfort or relief in the silence, or as Paul Tillich defined it, “the glory of being alone”.   

Alone is simply having no one else present.  It’s a state of being, but not related to feelings.   

Introverts often relish times of solitude and use them to recharge their batteries.  I’m partially introverted, and a quiet evening alone is sheer enjoyment for me.  I am in solitude, not feeling loneliness.  However, an extrovert who recharges with others may face alone time after a busy day as painful and lonely.  That person doesn’t have the others around to recharge with and thus the felt experience of solitude is very different.   

I read a book by a philosopher and psychologist from the 1950’s, Clark Moustakas, that was entitled “Loneliness”.  It was interesting as I read reviews of it on Amazon today – readers talk about it as not being the self-help book of the 2000’s, but rather a warm, inviting book, that asks us to look at what we are experiencing in the way of solitude versus loneliness and helping us to individually tackle the existential loneliness we are feeling at times.  I truly believe the experience of loneliness is not unique to us – but rather something we all experience at times, and based on the situation of it, may feel like solitude is pleasurable or loneliness which is painful.   

I was speaking with a friend who had cancer years ago, and one of the things she mentioned to me was that while she had family and sisters who were there to support her every step, and friends who were available and caring, the essence of her experience was a very lonely one.  She had to go under the radiation with only herself.  And eventually, she had to face her own death in some lonely ways.  Yet she also had times of solitude when she experienced spiritual growth and connection.  During Covid-19 many people are feeling lonely and depressed – others feeling solitude – and both can be in times they are alone or with others.  But it is loneliness that leads to depression.   

Depression is a reaction to longer term loneliness for some, and can leave a person feeling isolated, hopeless, and abandoned.  On a rational level, we may know that we are not abandoned at all, and yet the isolation is hurtful.  I can only imagine how isolating life is for many in senior care facilities or hospitals during this time.  The time we most need connection and love and touch is the very time we are quarantining and not connecting or touching.  And if a person has a limited memory, as many elderly do in senior care facilities, then that must feel like true abandonment.  Thankfully iPads and other devices have allowed some connection for many; but, this is still not the touch and presence that can bring us out of loneliness.  And unfortunately for many living alone and for others isolated in their living without time with friends, this is leading to higher levels of depression that has led to even higher levels of suicide than the past.  This month is National Suicide Awareness month and it’s so important we remain aware that we can turn loneliness to more of an experience of solitude – for growth spiritually and otherwise that can become more positive rather than the intensely painful loneliness that underlies the suicide increases.   

So how does a person make this shift?  Here are a few ideas from multiple sources of both spiritual and psychological literature.  Moustakas would encourage us to look within for what loneliness means to us, and how solitude might help us move out to a more healthy place.  He believed that it comes through introspection and not just trying to change the environment.  So asking yourself questions – what does it mean to you to not have people around as much?  What do you believe that means about you?  How did you come to have that belief?  What are your spiritual beliefs about loneliness?  Is there a way to walk into the loneliness and see what you might learn about yourself?  How is loneliness helpful in your life right now?  What is there for you to learn from it?  Start anywhere in these questions and begin journaling about your own experiences and internal feelings.  I would encourage you to move on to see where this goes and, if you can, look for Moustakas’ book (it’s hard to find but worth it) and take the journey he offers through it.  One of the gifts of loneliness is shifting to solitude through which we find meaning or purpose in this time.  In writing through exercises such as the above I do believe you’ll make your way through the desolation of loneliness to the peace of solitude.  

If depression has you, then first deal with the depression.  If it is significant and/or you have thoughts of self-harm at all – then you need to reach out for help now.  Not later.  There is a suicide hot-line at 1-800-273-8255 that is available 24 hours a day.  If you don’t feel suicidal but the depression is strong, then reach out to your family doctor, gynecologist, therapist, or spiritual director/priest/rabbi and get some help for it.  Only after this is resolved will you be able to move into the above ideas from Moustakas.  

Don’t ignore the spiritual work you may be called to during this time that can soothe the loneliness.  Starting a new practice can be helpful at times when we feel dark around us rather than the light of solitude. At other times hunkering down in a tried and true path is more comfortable.  Regardless, consider which feels right to you and perhaps try walking a handheld or land-based labyrinth, focus on a daily reading, take a mindful walk in the park, reread a special spiritual book or passage in the Bible or your faith’s tradition and take comfort in the words.   

In addition to the personal work, I would also encourage you to consider who else might be available.  Call a friend and ask to do it face-to-face on WhatsApp or Facetime or Zoom or some other modality.  Visual connection helps over only auditory and much more so than text.  I also encourage walks – get out and move and at least see others in your neighborhood as it will give you a mild sense of connection to your community in a safe way.  Other ideas to reaffirm connection can be joining an online class or service where there are regular Zoom or other meetings and you have the opportunity to interact with everyone; planning a weekend camping with a friend or a time at a cabin with friend or family member; volunteering where you feel safe such as walking a dog at a shelter- walking outdoors and cuddling with an animal might meet two needs in one; get a pet after considering what you can handle long-term, it may not be a dog or cat but perhaps a hamster or bird to keep you company.  You get the idea.   

Loneliness is a frequent feeling experienced recently, and may underlie the fatigue many are feeling in following pandemic safety.  There are ways through it, as I’ve shared.  John O’Donohue also writes about solitude and loneliness. May his words bring you encouragement, comfort, and increased solitude over pain.   

With care and best wishes for growth and comfort to your heart,  

Dr. Beth 

Dr. Beth Sikora, PhD, LPC, NCC 

Making Decisions: A Time of Challenge but All Shall Be Well

It seems there isn’t a week that goes by that doesn’t demand we make decisions about our safety and health as well as that of our families’, elections, finances, how to better show respect for each other, and what to do about school for our children.  While that is always the case in some way, 2020 has certainly brought all of these issues to a much higher frequency and intensity than we’ve had to deal with in the past.  It’s hardly a surprise, then, that both anxiety and depression are rising at a very high speed and being predicted to be the next pandemic we’ll have to address.  In fact, the Arizona Republic today reported that a warm line that is for those struggling with those feelings has gone from an average of 850 to 1500-2000 calls a week since mid-March.  So, with an awareness of how much stress is on individuals with decisions right now and the anxiety and depression increase I’m including a Part 1 and Part 2 to this blog.  The first is on decision making, and the second on anxiety and depression. 

Part 1:  Decision Making   

Weighty decisions can be difficult to make when the options are clear or there are good arguments to be made for either side. And right now, that is proving especially true. It’s tough to know the right thing to do, isn’t it? Mask wearing. Elections. Going back to school or a workplace. How do you make decisions when there are so many unknowns, and the options are not the best? There was a clip on Good Morning America this past week from a pediatrician who was sharing her advice on making decisions. Her focus was on safety of students returning to school but my takeaway was something that could be expanded to broader decisions: there is no “right” decision.  A person just has to make the best decision for his or her family with the information available at the time  and move on. So, let’s take it back to the basics, and start with the decision-making process itself.

1. Identify the decision: Clearly define the nature of the decision you must make.

2. Gather relevant information: Collect some pertinent information from trusted sources. Some information is internal: you’ll seek it through a process of self-assessment. Other information is external: you’ll find it online, from other people, and from other sources.

3. Identify the alternatives: As you collect information, you will probably identify several possible paths of action, or alternatives. You can also use your imagination and additional information to construct new alternatives. In this step, you will list all possible and desirable alternatives.

4. Weigh the evidence: Draw on your information and emotions to imagine what it would be like if you carried out each of the alternatives to the end. As you go through this difficult internal process, you’ll begin to favor certain alternatives: those that seem to have a higher potential for reaching your goal.

5. Choose from alternatives: Once you have weighed all the evidence, you are ready to select the alternative that seems to be best one for you. You may even choose a combination of alternatives. Your choice in Step 5 may very likely be the same or similar to the alternative you placed at the top of your list at the end of Step 4.

6. Take action: You’re now ready to take some positive action by beginning to implement the alternative you chose in Step 5.

7. Review your decision & its consequences: In this final step, consider the results of your decision and evaluate whether or not it has resolved the need you identified. If the decision has not met the identified need, you may want to repeat certain steps of the process to make a new decision. For example, you might want to gather more detailed or somewhat different information or explore additional alternatives.

This process may be one you already intuitively use, but if you feel you’re more of a gut reaction person, write down the direction you want to take based on your instinct and then try using the process described above. Do you arrive at the same conclusion? Is there a way to blend both conclusions that feels like a well-informed answer for you? Remember that even in times of uncertainty, we can each only do our best. What is right for today may not be what is right for tomorrow, so take some time, consider all options, and trust yourself. We can only make the best decision for today, and with the information we have today.  Know that and try not to question the decision later.  Reassessing later is fine to see if you need to change direction, but it’s again a decision made from the information you have on that day.  The decisions you make will be the right ones for yourselves for today, and that’s the best any of us can expect.

Part 2:  Anxiety and Depression Increasing

Essentially depression is a feeling of hopelessness, sadness, and/or loss of interest in life or activities you would generally enjoy.  It may be situational, i.e.:  related to a current situation in your life; or, clinical, i.e.:  related to a biological change or malfunction from medical, hormonal, genetic, or other reasons over which you may not have control.  Anxiety is a sense of impending doom or reaction to a stressful or situations perceived as dangerous.  The symptoms of each are specific, and you can get more information on anxiety and depression on our website.

Now that you understand it – what do you think?   Are you suffering a bit from it?  I do encourage you to track it for a while to see where you are with it and how it’s trending.  So, get a piece of paper, a notepad in your device, or use a program, and rate it 1 (none at all) to 10 (you could act on suicide today).  If it is 8-10 you need to call your doctor or therapist.  Or, at the bottom are a few crisis lines if you can’t quickly reach someone for help.  Please don’t let your ego or past beliefs get in your way – depression is a high-risk illness – and potentially can be fatal in a small number of cases.  So, get the help you deserve.  How about anxiety?  I would encourage you to again track for a while – what is triggering it?  If it’s decision making – see above.  If it’s getting sick – work on focusing on what you’re already doing to take care of yourself and family.  And if it’s always stuck in your head, ask for help. 

If you are nervous about dealing with both children and work this fall, sit down and speak with your partner or a good friend and work out a plan for your day.  Sometimes using a calendar helps one in organizing the day so you know what the children need to do and where they need to be – whether at school or online for school, work hours, doctor and other appointments, shopping, etc.  And together also brainstorm all the free services or low-cost services you can call on to help save you time – Instant Cart, Door Dash, individual store shop and pick up options, and others.  Also, who can you share with and split the errands or needs?  Perhaps after reviewing your calendar together your spouse or partner can list all the errands for the week, and each agree to handle some of the work.  The same with work around the house.  Often an hour of planning can help save you hours.  And that will mean decreased anxiety and depression.    

Other anxiety and depression prompts can be larger with less tangible solutions.  Things like, will I be laid off?  How will I survive if that happens?  What will happen in the election?  Worry about a parent in an assisted care whom you cannot visit presently.  Or even a lonely feeling of not seeing friends as you have in the past, the isolation many are enduring.  Interestingly the steps are similar to decision making in that we need to first identify what is triggering the feeling.  Next, look for information about that to identify whether you are worrying or anxious about a reality or something that isn’t real at present.  An example might be a fear of being laid off as fear of the economy is in your mind.  Well, check out your company’s financial condition, see what your boss or Human Resources know about potential lay-offs.  They won’t give you concrete assurances, but often you can identify whether things have even been talked about and check the trade periodicals for the same.  Then consider how to make your position and you more valuable to the company and be sure to improve your position through upgrading skills, identifying your successes to more than just yourself, and challenging any negative thoughts that are not grounded in facts.  Even if you are affected by a lay-off by doing these last things you are upgrading your value to other companies.  Then note this on your calendar for 30 days out and reassess.  Each time you want to worry – take yourself back to the calendar and notice you have a “worry date” made for later.  That written task let’s our brain let go of this more easily.  The steps here are:  a) identify the cause of the feelings; b) get information about the reality of the situation; c) determine if there is someone else who can help you gain more information or perspective (often this is a spouse or friend); d) list options you can take to better the situation for you; e) make a date to next evaluate the situation; and f) reassess it on that date. 

Next time I’ll write about loneliness as it is impacting so very many individuals and I believe it is frequently underlying the current depression.  But for now – you have some concrete tools to deal with situational depression and anxiety and decision making.  I also have to encourage you to call on your spiritual resources, support people, creative outlets, and music.  All can improve or worsen our current functioning.  So, consider a step in each of these areas, you may be surprised how much something as simple as listening to music if you haven’t for awhile will help your mood.  Or coloring a mandala.  Or even just doing a walking meditation or online church service.  We’re not made in isolation, folks, we need others to live successfully.  So, use the creations of others (music), the connection spiritually that you have; the friends and close others in your life as well as family; and creation outdoors to bolster you at these times.  And if it is even too much for those resources, see the resources for immediate help if you can’t reach a therapist or physician.  But take care of yourself and reach a therapist or doctor for ongoing care. 

To close I’ll share a prayer that was written during a time of great difficulty 100’s of years ago: 

All shall be well.

And all shall be well.

And all manner of thing shall be well.  (Julian of Norwich)

Be well and take care of yourself,

Dr. Beth

Teen Lifeline:  (for teens) 602-248-8336 or 1-800-248-8336

Maricopa County Suicide and Crisis Hotline:  1-800-631-1314 or 602-222-9444

National Suicide Prevention Line:  1-800-273-8255 and for Spanish:  1-888-628-9454

Crisis Response Network:  602-347-1100

Decision making process excerpts taken from https://www.umassd.edu/fycm/decision-making/process/

Hope, Love, Faith

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Hope, Love, Faith

Last weekend I spent a lot of time coloring and processing what was happening within.  This weekend I have spent a great deal of time in reading and prayer.  And both weekends I have sought out time with friends or family – through FaceTime, Zoom, or other mediums in order to feel connected.  One thing I believe we are all learning is that much as we are all individually having to handle this crisis given the need for social distancing; we are also in this together – with the entire world.  I keep replaying in my mind a song from the 60’s … “what the world needs now, is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…what the world needs now, is love sweet love, no not just for some, but for everyone.”  (You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUaxVQPohlU).   

And so, we look for love and connections through our faith communities, our friends, our families, and even our pets.  Pope Francis really touched me this weekend when he spoke and said simply, yet powerfully, “We are all on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other … [we] have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”  This made me begin to think about how I share my hope and love.  And I do have hope for our futures.  It will not be the same future we imagined 30 days ago perhaps; but it can be one that is even more connected with each other, working toward common goals.  I’ve seen small examples of games in the neighborhood like putting a teddy bear in the window for children to find on a walk with their parents during a break in studying at home.  Or neighborhood children (and adults) who have left messages in colored chalk for others walking by.  I loved running across one while walking Finley the other night – just a reminder of not being a solo in the neighborhood, but part of a bigger whole.  Or the neighbors offering to do grocery runs or other errands if someone cannot get out to do their own at this time.   And yet … reminding everyone to stay in as much as possible.  There is hope in the fact that we are reaching out to one another in love … through chalk, teddy bears, or 15-minute errands. 

I’ve found this weekend I also want to express myself in different ways – by returning to some artwork — not to express my emotions, but to enjoy the freedom of creation, the hope in creating something that didn’t exist.  I read a brief article somewhere this morning that said people are reaching out to plant more gardens (it mentioned similar to victory gardens around World Wars I and II).  And we are in a war for our lives and a cure, are we not?  Many are looking at creating something no matter what level of talent they may have.  I would encourage you to reach out and try something this week.  Perhaps a crayon drawing.  Or plant some herbs or flowers if you have the materials or can get them via pick up at one of the local stores like Ace, Home Depot, Walmart, or Lowe’s.  Color a mandala (Go to this link for some free ones to print https://printmandala.com/) or do some paint by number on an app like Happy Color.  One favorite I had as a child and only takes a piece of paper and crayons or markers is to scribble lines and curves all over a blank piece of paper, and then color the spaces in forming a picture among the shapes.  Or, color all of the shapes in, then color over it in black, and lightly scrape off the black letting colored shapes show through the black.  Have children?  In addition to the above projects that would also work for them, check out Highlights at https://www.highlights.com/parents/crafts/31-kids-crafts.  And remember Pinterest always has 100’s of ideas. 

Scribble Art Sample
Scribble Art Sample

Pope Francis speaks of our vulnerability, a favorite topic of Brene Brown as well.  She had her first new podcast recently, and spoke about FFT’s, Frightening (or another F word) First Times.  So many are wondering how does one get through a frightening time like a pandemic?  And Brene said, honestly, none of us knows – it’s our first time, we are all vulnerable and exposed in walking through this time.  Pope Francis said, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules”.  A student of mine asked me this week if I’d ever survived a pandemic.  As well as sending her a history lesson 😊 I also spoke of the fact we are vulnerable, we are all in the same boat of one day at a time, and reaching out for support from friends, faith communities, and therapists or other care providers during our time of fear and vulnerability; and to our physicians and hospitals if we do become ill.  But allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another – share your fear, allow another to cry or be with their feelings, offer your hope and strength when you have it, be present fully in the moment by text, video chat, letter, email, phone call – will allow you to also move forward “choos[ing] what matters” (Pope Francis).

And so hope, and love, come through faith, connection, vulnerability, giving, and risk in trying new things.  We will not find hope if we hide in a corner.  As frightened as a person may be, the only answer is to come out into the light.  Be vulnerable with another and connect.  Risk doing so and expressing yourself honestly, perhaps for the first time; but at the least for the first time during a pandemic.  Give to others through any way that comes to you to do so.  And walk in your faith, whatever it may be, and take it just one step at a time, one day at a time, through these darker times.  Regardless of your faith, I would encourage you to reach up for strength and hope, reach out in love, and reach in to find one thing to be grateful for each day.  If we each do our best, just our best as we are able to do today, we will make it through this time together.   

Take care of yourself,

Dr. Beth

PTSD: Feel like yourself again

“It felt like a malignant tumor that was spreading through my entire life. It was a jumble of fear, depression, anxiety, irritability, and feeling jumpy all at once and it stayed with me day and night. I didn’t want to see my family and friends, and didn’t want to talk about it—what if they thought I was crazy?” This isn’t a quote from any single source, it’s the story of many. About 8 million adults have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in a year. Have you, or someone you love, gone through a shocking and dangerous event?

PTSD often connotes images of fatigue wearing military, veterans, and first responders. Those are certainly prolific examples of people who have faced trauma and tragedy, but they are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Traumatic events happen to any number of people, any number of ways, on any given day. “Trauma” may be one big event like a house fire, a car accident, or an assault, or it could be a series of events– like a prolonged life-altering illness, an abusive situation, or even the act of being a caregiver. While the circumstances of trauma are wide and varied, the physical manifestations of the trauma can look quite similar.

It is typical to experience the above in the days and even weeks following the trauma, but if they continue, it’s time to reach out for help. Psychotherapy does work, sometimes therapy alone is enough and sometimes it is partnered with medications for the most effective treatment. There are a number of approaches therapists can use to help you process the feelings you’re experiencing, see the areas that the intrusive thoughts are holding you back, and help you move on to a fulfilling life once again. As a supplementary technique, music therapy has also shown to be very effective for helping those with PTSD.

If you or someone you know isn’t progressing in life after trauma, reach out for help. There is hope, and you can regain control of your life. For more information on PTSD and how we at The Wholeness Institute can help, visit https://www.thewholenessinstitute.com/ptsdtherapy.html