We Can’t Direct the Wind, But We Can Adjust the Sail: Responding to Forced Isolation In Times of Crisis

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

At our core, humans are hardwired to connect with people, places, and things. These relational connections represent portals through which emotional, psychological, and spiritual nourishment flows collectively providing energy that grounds and fuels us as we navigate both calm and more restless seas of life's challenges. Relational connections also influence how we experience ourselves as ever-evolving beings on journeys to find purpose and meaning.

The exhausting and potentially punishing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic come into clear focus as days turn into an indeterminate number of weeks that quietly morph into months. The threat imposed by this insidious virus is real, bona fide, and has descended on our lives with all-consuming vengeance and without regard for social class, race, ethnicity, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation or religion. It has quite visibly and tangibly disrupted the lives of local, domestic and global citizenry; shaken economies; tested the boundaries of national health care systems; and has invited reasonable queries about the strengths of First World countries to stay in front of this life-altering crisis. One of the most challenging pandemic-related provocations lies in the experiences of forced confinement.

Experiencing Forced Confinement

Forced confinement represents an experience of being mandated by external systems or circumstances to stay “in place,” surrendering to imposed and sometimes considerable restrictions, and adhering to instructions relative to protection-based movements within designated zones. Though confinement within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is not punishment-based, as would be the case for persons in the penal system, the experience, nonetheless, feels austere, highly regulated, and unnatural.

These unnatural, puzzling, overwhelming, and sometimes confusing feelings that get triggered stem from several interrelated factors, five of which include:

  1. First, the circumstances or situations and their corresponding restrictions represent ‘impositions' into our lives versus welcomed adjustments. In short, beliefs about how much control we really have in how we manage our lives was immediately challenged;
  2. A second factor is rooted in the realization that the ‘imposition' came suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. This realization leads to feeling caught off-guard and unprotected;
  3. Third, on a multiple-time-daily basis, people of all ages are used to taking in and processing huge volumes of information, content and stimuli. Some portions or percentages of the data processing experience are not always obvious or conscious. People, nonetheless, come to rely on this complex and sophisticated system of information and data processing to guide their interactions with others and to gauge feedback from those with whom they are interacting. This interactional communication feedback loop is a necessary survival tool helpful in regulating social living and navigating life's challenges. The sudden shift in the interactional communication feedback loop fuels self-protective caution and self-doubt;
  4. Fourth, many factors contribute to work productivity and satisfaction. For colleagues with K-12 school-aged children, one factor fueling work productivity and satisfaction comes from knowing that their children are taken care of in the schools and after-school childcare centers they attend. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of daily learning outlets for children and spaces where parents know their children are safe while they learn. To say that forced shared confinement has ushered in enormous compromise and resolution challenges is an understatement. For children, feeling disconnected from classmates, teachers, competition with peers, and experiences such as canceled or delayed grade promotions, school dances, and graduations are not easily reconciled. For parents, the new reality of work-at-home demands, peppered with finding ways to keep their children engaged in school, can be as challenging as helping them really grasp the seriousness of the pandemic without scaring them into panic. Carving out individual spaces seems almost impossible. Coping as a family with vacillating levels of frustration, anxiety, stress, boredom, anger, depression, and possible resentments become formidable tasks to manage;
  5. Fifth, for some people, work can also represent places of retreat and solace from existing home and community dysfunction, distress, and disarray. The demands of a full-day's work can serve as an escape and relieve persons from wallowing in worry and self-doubt about their current station in life. Work can also provide a self-protective buffer from grappling with emotional burdens that come with ruminating on painful memories of the past. Being forced back to the home and into the grip of environmental chaos and memories of adverse childhood experiences is akin to pouring salt on open wounds of emotional unease and torment.

In the short term, people can usually make adjustments that feel manageable resulting in them feeling good about having found ways to move forward with their regular, though now slightly modified activities. As time passes, feeling increasingly anxious, depressed, restless, and on edge would not be uncommon. Disruptions in sleep patterns, nutritional practices and self-care routines, as well as compromised mental and physical performance, elevated stress level, and feelings of abandonment, could also likely surface.

Longer-term confinements, particularly with increased real or perceived isolation, can lead to craving for stimulation, interference with sense of time, and hopelessness. The lack of sustained external environmental stimuli to process, and make sense of, often leads to increased reliance on turning inward, getting into your own head. For those already experiencing increased levels of depression, anxiety, panic, fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt, spending increased time “in your head” makes ambiguities frustrating and difficult to resolve and clarity of answers tough to materialize. This level of emotional vulnerability invites people who are struggling and feeling like they are at their wits' end to reach out to a mental health professional. For those observing family, friends, or colleagues struggling emotionally, the time is now, to show compassion and to reach out to them, offering assistance and support.

And, all of this means?

  1. Don’t relinquish your power to adversity or circumstances. That said, if current realities feel too challenging to manage, then do not hesitate to reach out to a professional, colleague, friend, or family via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facetime, text, or any other social connection tool. Outreaching to persons for support often results in feeling better. You might also discover that the people helping you will share that your outreach to them has unexpectedly helped them in ways they had not anticipated.
  2. How people think about or frame the circumstances and situations they confront makes all the difference in the world. For example, think about the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call inviting reflection on questions that might include who we are, what's important, and for what purposes am we here to serve? Do not hit the snooze alarm and go back to sleep! Choose, instead, to get up and get in the mix of reclaiming space and function in your life. Consider the mantra: When one door closes, another one opens. You are also invited to consider a reflection offered by celebrated author Paulo Coelho who suggests, “Close some doors today. Not because of pride, incapacity, or arrogance, but simply because they lead you nowhere.”
  3. In framing “a new reality” it is always important to acknowledge loss of the way things used to be. It is important to take moments to draw lessons from past experiences. Consider that life doesn't happen to you, life happens for you. On the flip side, imagine how you would like things to be after the crisis has subsided. The power of imagination is real and helps us to remain hopeful. Ask yourself, “In what ways do I want to be different?” Being reminded that life can catch me off guard, how can I be better prepared in all areas of my life when stormy seas of challenge re-emerge? Dream about life as you would like to see it unfold in the future. And, set your mental compass in the direction of your North Star goal and begin acting ‘as if' your imagination will come to fruition. Self-declare that it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.
  4. Feeling “out of control” triggers emotional irritation, discomfort, and strong urges to regain control. Honoring pre-crisis daily routines (e.g., wake-up, bedtime, meals, exercise and fitness, leisure pursuits, faith-based practices, etc.) is a place to start regaining a sense of control. Choosing to read books, novels, autobiographies that address themes of successfully navigating self- or other-imposed confinement can provide images, models, and more importantly, solutions for how to succeed at making the best out of bad situations. “Man's Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl (in audiobook or hard/soft cover), is a must-read. Deciding to see movies not yet seen, or looking at movies you enjoyed in the past, might also be considered. A personal favorite includes “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (with Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron). Seeking wise counsel and suggestions from colleagues, friends, and family regarding books or movies on their to-do lists that address succeeding through confinement and adversity is also encouraged.

Final Thoughts:

It is clear, that much in our lives has shifted. Merely weeks ago, we would have never dreamt that life would feel so different. The one thing that can't be taken away, however, no matter how tough or burdensome times become, is choice. The ability to choose is the tie that binds how we think feel, and behave, in response to this very serious pandemic. Decisions will continue to be difficult to make and execute, and looming uncertainties about the near and distant future of this pandemic and the implications thereof keep us focused and alert. That said, I end where I began, reaffirming that while we can't direct the wind, we can adjust the sail! Until next time.