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Psychological coping mechanisms for extreme solitude

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Dragan Otasevic
Dragan Otasevic Oct 26, 2020
If you found yourself in a situation of extreme isolation, how would you cope with the solitude?

From extreme to less extreme, Imagine scenarios such as:
  • being burried under a pile of rocks after an erthquake
  • being burried in a mine that caved in
  • being alone on a spaceship
  • being in prison solitary confinement
  • having no relatives or friends and no internet connection while being confined to a hotel room for the lockdown
In some situations your survival is uncertain while in others you know you would eventually get out. In some situations you have props while in others you are alone with your thoughts only.

How would you keep your sanity during extreme isolation?
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Physical exhaustion

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Juran Oct 26, 2020
In order to relieve the accumulated stress, people often workout (train, jog, walk, hike, etc.). Similar stress can arise from thinking of salvation in an uncertain situation. Therefore, it is not weird that many prisoners workout. It could help your mind to stay clear, safe, and sound!

Implement usual daily routines

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Juran Oct 26, 2020
It could be helpful to implement your usual daily routine. If you worked out in the morning, do it there also. If you usually read a book after lunch and then take a nap, do it the same way while experiencing one of the situations above. Of course, it is not always possible to mimic your full schedule, but thinking of these routines in the scheduled times sometimes helps, too. We are talking about situations where your efforts to "get out" do not help.

Abdominal breathing (belly breathing)

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Oct 30, 2020
The right kind of breathing helps maintain mental and physical homeostasis. During stress/ anxiety, the automatic response from the autonomic nervous system prepares the body. Unconsciously, we start shallow breathing, which maintains the physiological stress response. Prolonged shallow breathing may increase the chances of hyperventilation or an anxiety/panic attack. Of all the physical stress reactions, the one that we can change most readily is our breath. When we breathe in the opposite way to the stress response, we begin to reduce the impact that stress has on our physiology. Therefore, by breathing slowly, with long inhalation all the way into the lower part of the lungs, using the abdominal muscles, we send messages to our brain to activate the relaxation response. When we take a long breath out, the diaphragm contracts, which then stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to activate the physiological relaxation response. It also helps the mind to slow down, be calmer, and gain more perspective.

Relaxation therapy including abdominal breathing improved the well-being score and depression symptoms in the participants in a study.

[1]https://www.bloomfieldpsychology.com.au/blog/power-calming-belly-breathing#:~:text=It%20is%20like%20a%20reset,activate%20the%20%E2%80%9Crelaxation%20response%E2%80%9D.

[2]https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=67411

Loneliness Vs Solitude: the knowledge of future matters

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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Oct 26, 2020
Does being lonely count the same as being in solitude? Personally, (and I will speak based on my own experiential wisdom) I think being lonely is somehow unwanted; however, solitude is a necessary thing. To be lonely means to be emotionally distant, unreachable, and unavailable. To be in solitude, however, signals that an individual is not necessarily detached from his/her congenial surrounding, but chooses not to be disturbed. A person who lives a hermetic life, meditating and wandering deep in the mountains does not live a lonely life; rather he/she is content in the solitude that he/she chose to be in. Having said this, I would also like to draw attention to yet another circumstantial instance where being lonely can be taken easily in its offset value. For example, take the case of mandatory quarantined self-isolation that we might be forced to be in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two months ago, in the second half of August, I traveled to my home (Nepal) from Delhi, India. As needed, for the first 14 days of my arrival, I stayed in home isolation. At times, I felt lonely and depressed (the anxiety heightened by the social stigma of being a traveler that came from a COVID hotspot- mind that I live in a third-world society). However, the loneliness was bearable not just because I had internet connectivity to occasionally chit-chat with my friends and family, but more importantly, because I KNEW I COULD GO BACK TO THE NORMALCY AFTER THOSE 14 DAYS OF QUARANTINE. I emphasized the last line because the tentative knowledge of the future and hence the associated hope (or the lack of it) makes all the difference when it comes to coping with loneliness. To give another relatable example, I would like to speak about my 10 days of voluntary silence and detachment from the world at the Vipassana camp. There, I could not speak, interact or even make eye contact with any other human being for the ten long days, however, since I had signed up for the same, there was no negative value attached to the loneliness. I surely was in solitude, all by myself, but I was not lonely. In this view, coping with loneliness becomes easier if we have the knowledge of how long the loneliness would last. To cite the stated instance of being alone in a spaceship presented in the session, what would make the loneliness bearable is determined by my hopes for the future. If I know that I would continue to be lonely for another few months, I might not be in that much distress; however, if I am uncertain how long the loneliness would continue, I would surely feel damned and hopeless. Hence, trying to be objective and finding a way to assess the probable length of the condition that we are in would be a key point in coping with loneliness.

Depends on the context, but some commons can be extrapolated

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Anja M
Anja M Oct 26, 2020
I think it is important that in the first place we make a distinction between the solitude when it comes to disasters (eartquake, tornado, any mishap of the sort that threatens one's life directly) and solitude in the sense of other psycho-physical isolations which can come either willingly, or as a byproduct of some other circumstance (e.g. a foreign student living alone in a country of visit). So, adopting this division would only make the second case appropriate for calling it "solitude", while the first one would be, like you said, isolation, or even "forced isolation".

Anyhow, starting from the first type, much will depend on the circumstances including:
  • Body state (are there any fractures, open wounds, bleeding, etc.)
  • Supplies (food, water, air) ---> Remembering to use the supplies wisely and in smaller amounts in order to maximize the chances of having enough of them
  • Contact (are you able to reach someone via some medium, or by your own voice) ---> A very useful tip here is to tell someone (close) where you are going before you do. That way, if you are not back, a reasonable suspicion can be raised. E.g. From 2018. Thai cave rescue, we can learn a lot about planning and essential survival techniques: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44791998
Having these predispositions at the same time raises the chances of easying down the mental pressure.

In the case of a self-isolation of a sort:
  • Morally (and legally) forced isolation (e.g.living alone and have contracted covid-19: in this case, it will depend how physically ill you feel + how many people around you you have for support: from buying you groceries, to talking to you.
  • A more extreme case of introversion (this should be addressed properly, and hopefully a person has some relatives or at least aquaintances who know her well enough to be let to approach if this becomes too extreme; finding the roots for such a behaviour)
All in all, for both types, the negative aspects leading to the scale of "insanity" more can be tackled in multiple ways:

  • Become aware of what is causing the problem/certain state of mind. Learn about yourself and what induces you to certain behavioral patterns.
  • Breathing techniques I don't think I need to explain more the benefits of calmed breathing and various breathing techinques.
  • Remember to calm down and not let anxiety/paranoia/claustrophobia kick in This is especially crucial in type #1 situations.
  • Try to remember the purpose of what you are doing (e.g.the spacecraft situation)
  • Try to repurpose your day (e.g.tho covid-19 example; being ill is usually one of best times when we can reshift our focuses and question our habits and life led that far)
  • Remeber you always have yourself As much as this may sound even cheesy and plain at the first hearing, it is not. There are always topics you can have with yourself without them leading to overthinking. Try to tackle anything mind-engaging. From remembering song lyrics, phone numbers, to more philosophical topics.

**Two additional situations I would like to open to a potential continued brainstorming:

-The spacecraft situation: I recommend watching "The Moon" with Sam Rockwell. It opens to something we can call a potential "cure" for solitude, although I am putting quotation marks because of the controversy and food-for-thought the film sparkles.
Another inspirational: episode "Helping hand" from "Love, death, robots". It portrays a woman on a space station trying to repair it before she accidentally detaches and realizes she is all alone, but has to make it back if she wants to survive.

-Solitude: "Shawshank redemption" - the most productive solitude by a man persistently following an alternative path to his innocence
Pixar's "Chess game": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IYRC7g2ICg See it for yourself and notice how solitude can be taken in both positive and negative way. :)

Introspection and spiritual practice

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Povilas S
Povilas S Jan 27, 2021
Situations, where we are deprived of contact with people/outside world, can be viewed as opportunities to turn inwards.

Fundamental questions, such as: who am I (at the core of my being)?; what is the meaning of life?; what is happiness, and do I need certain external circumstances to be happy?; why do I suffer, what is the essential cause of my suffering?; etc., can be tackled with greater attention and dedication, allowing answers to arise as personal insights that are much more valuable than knowledge coming from external sources.

Times of hardship often make people turn to those questions naturally. However, when being in a convenient everyday setting we have many ways to distract ourselves in order to get away from bad feelings. When we have no options for distraction, because of the limiting circumstances, we are forced to meet the side of ourselves we tend to neglect and deal with unanswered questions we may conveniently ignore.

Circumstances of solitude and limited contact with the external world are favorable conditions for spiritual practices such as meditation, contemplation, and prayer. That's why deliberate self-isolation/asceticism are common elements of spiritual traditions. Prisoners are often referred by spiritual teachers as the audience who are the most open to the teachings and willing to transform themselves.

So in this perspective, psychological coping mechanisms are actually more active when we have full availability to various external stimuli - we can "run away" from bad feelings and unsolved emotional issues by engaging in various experiences, activities, and relationships. When circumstances leave us empty of options, then those mechanisms can no longer function and we are forced to face ourselves. By viewing those circumstances as an opportunity for introspection and self-development we enrich the situation with meaning and value. Current pandemic can be viewed as having that purpose on a global scale.

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