April 17, 2020

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Guest Author

Isolation And Unusual Experiences In The Time Of COVID-19

Articles and blogs abound about how to manage depression and anxiety during social isolation. But one thing that most people are not talking about (and yet something that is very common and perfectly normal) is something we can all be vulnerable to during social isolation: experiences that we psychologists often refer to as unusual or extraordinary experiences.

There is no denying this is unprecedented time. We are being told to say home. And, while it is essential to practice social distancing, we all know that social isolation is not good for us.

Articles and blogs abound about how to manage depression and anxiety during social isolation. But one thing that most people are not talking about (and yet something that is very common and perfectly normal) is something we can all be vulnerable to during social isolation: experiences that we psychologists often refer to as unusual or extraordinary experiences. Isolation can exacerbate our vulnerability to unusual and extraordinary experiences. that’s why it's particularly important at this time to be talking about what they are, how normal they are, and how crucial it is to reach out now!

Here are some examples of what we mean by unusual or extraordinary experiences:

Sensory perceptions that only you have:

• The experience of sounds, whispering, a voice in or outside your head, or hearing your

own thoughts spoken out loud

• Strange visual perceptions and visions, like auras or other things in your visual field

• Unusual bodily perceptions or sensations without a clear external cause, like crawling on your skin

Alienating experiences:

• Surroundings seem strange, new and not familiar

• Time seems to pass more quickly, and then more slowly

• You lose contact with yourself and it seems as though you are not in everyday reality (like The Matrix, if you are familiar with that movie!)

Experiences of threat:

• The frightening assumption that people are conspiring against you (these thoughts may or may not be related to the virus)

• The experience that others are ‘out to get you’, either trying to infect you or something else

Experiences of being influenced:

• Feelings and thoughts that do not seem to be under the control of your own will; they seem

to have been taken over or inserted

• Experiences that remind you of and evoke thoughts about telepathy

• Thoughts about messages that are meant specifically for you, sent by others sometimes

via channels like the radio or television (those press conferences can be a big one right now)

Confusion and difficulties with concentrating:

• Difficulty with regulating one’s thoughts and choosing the right words. Others say they cannot understand you properly. You may notice your thoughts going so fast you can’t catch them

Changed experiences in contact with other people (either in your apartment, outside, or by video chat):

• Nervousness in the proximity of others

• People say that they think you do not express your feelings enough

• People say that you act strangely or that you have strange habits

• Everyday problems and stressors become heavier to bear

So, what can you do if you experience any unusual or extraordinary experiences? What about if someone you love mentions something or looks like they might be having these experiences?

1.     First and foremost: normalize, normalize, normalize

If you learn one thing from reading this today, let it be that these are experiences that all of us are vulnerable to and having them doesn’t mean anything bad. Anyone. You, me, you friend, your brother, your mom, your boss.

The more we talk about that and are accepting of these experiences, the more space folks have who are experiencing these things to be able to tell us about them and get support (rather than isolating more!).

If you have experienced any of these things, don’t panic. Reach out to us here at MyWellbeing. We have lots of great therapists who are very experienced at helping folks make sense of what is going on for you right now.

Stress, uncertainly, and change – plus what is essentially solitary confinement – can take a huge toll on our bodies and brains and can easily make it such that “weird sh*t happens”.

If someone you know mentions an unusual or extraordinary experience, just normalize and empathize. You could say something like: “Yeah, I hear stuff like that is pretty common and could happen to any of us. So sorry you had that experience. How do you feel about it?”

The key thing that makes a difference in the lives of people who experience these things and don’t have long-term problems, versus those who go on to reach criteria for a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, is whether they met enough people in their life who catastrophized. The more catastrophizing that goes on, the more quickly someone reaches criteria for something diagnosable.

Conversely, the more we normalize and talk about this stuff, the more stigma goes down and people feel less distressed. In turn, reducing stigma makes it more likely that people can get the support they need.

2.     If you are living in the same house and notice the person isolates more than usual in their room. . .

a.     Don’t tell them to come out.

b.     Don’t tell them you are worried about them.

c.     Do tell them you are there for them and just sit with them. Sitting in silence is fine, but you can also share validating statements like “hey, man, I’m here for you.

d.     Do spend time with them playing a game or doing some activity together (even if they say they don’t want to). You could say “okay, well, I’m just gonna sit here and read this magazine anyway” and then occasionally reference interesting things out loud: “wow, did you see what JLo posted on Insta?”

3.     If you are in a different location, but notice that they have been much more quiet than usual. . .

a.     Do call them on video chat.

b.     Don’t ask lots of questions about how they are.

c.     Do tell them you are there for them and just sit with them, in silence is fine.

d.    Do spend time with them on video chat playing a game or some activity together (even if they say they don’t want to).

4.     Support the person to reach out for online therapy.

One of the small silver linings to this very dark cloud is the proliferation of access to online therapy.  For folks who are experiencing unusual or extraordinary things, especially those who are isolating more in response to this, there is no need to leave home and deal with the potential additional stressors that involves. Now, it is super easy to arrange for online therapy to come to you.

Just telling someone “you need therapy” doesn’t usually work. We need to finesse it a little so that they can relate to what we are saying. Typically, the conversations goes something like this:

“This is a lot that we are all going through right now. I can’t even begin to describe all the ways its affecting me. I am so glad that my therapist switched to online sessions, as continuing to see her is really helping me get through this. I hear that therapists are taking on new clients right now to help us all manage our stress and distress. How about we look online together and see if we can find someone who looks like a good fit?”

We are all in this together. But we are also more alone now than ever. Let’s continue watching out for each other and making sure we all get the support we need!

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About the author

Sally Riggs is a licensed psychologist with 19 years experience working with people with unusual experiences and expertise in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Psychosis. She is the Founder & Director of NYC CBTp, a group private practice in NYC dedicated to providing evidence based therapy for folks experiencing unusual experiences.   You can learn more about Sally and her practice here.

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