Scattered and Struggling? Here’s the #1 way to Reduce Stress

Left to its own devices, my mind is more of a hindrance than a help, even in the best of times. Obviously, these are not the best of times.

Without careful oversight, my thoughts bounce around aimlessly from one random, distressing, or useless thing to another like a bouncy ball hyped up on espresso.

Maybe you feel the same way. I think we’re all struggling right now to avoid the fear and uncertainty gremlins, reduce stress, and stay hopeful and focused on what’s most important.

Biology, unfortunately, is working against us. One of our primary instincts is fight or flight. Our brains are wired to constantly seek out and manage threats, which means they’re working overtime right now trying to protect us.

Without careful management of our thoughts and emotions, we could easily spend the upcoming months in a state of dithering panic. Living well right now requires us to exercise a certain amount of self-discipline.

“These are unprecedented times. We need to work extra hard to manage our emotions well,” says the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. We’ll need to manage our thoughts and emotions so we can stay on track and move forward with purpose, hope and joy.

Self-discipline is crucial right now, because it can help us:

  • Avoid negative behaviors like doom scrolling and emotional eating;
  • Manage our thoughts, so we can keep our priorities front and center despite myriad distractions; and
  • Ensure we take care of ourselves when it’s hard so we can rise to the challenges we’re facing.

Discipline is difficult to maintain at any time, but especially now with so many challenges and distractions. Spending time by yourself - in other words, seeking solitude - is the key to fostering discipline and focus.

Woman meditates in lotus position

Wait! Don’t go!

I realize that quarantine has affected us all differently. Maybe you’ve been forced to spend waaaay too much time by yourself, which makes the idea of seeking solitude sound like some special kind of COVID hell.

Or maybe you’re so sick of those you’ve had to hunker down with for the past decade several months that the idea of spending an hour (maybe even a whole week) by yourself sounds like pure heaven.

Trust me when I say that either way, solitude can help you. I’ll explain how.

But first...

What exactly is solitude?

“Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself,” says Psychology Today. “Choosing to spend time doing things by yourself can have mental, emotional and social benefits,” adds the New York Times.

For some, the idea of solitude is welcome. For others, the idea brings discomfort. It’s important to understand that, unlike loneliness, solitude is a deliberate and purposeful way of being by yourself.

The benefits of solitude

Experts say that we all benefit from intentional alone time - introverts and extroverts alike. Stepping away from outside influences for a period of time helps us decompress. Activities that help us reduce stress are particularly important right now as stress negatively impacts our self-control.

A coffee cup and books sitting next to a bed

Going inward regularly allows you to identify harmful thought patterns or strong emotions that threaten to derail you so you can take steps to manage them.

In a world saturated with information and stimulation, solitude also provides the opportunity to gain critical perspective. “When people remove themselves from the social context of their lives, they are better able to see how they’re shaped by that context,” says The Atlantic. This awareness helps you distinguish between helpful and harmful influences so you can manage your exposure - and reactions - accordingly.

Solitude also provides the opportunity to clarify and recommit to your priorities. Doing so helps ensure that your behaviors and actions reflect what’s most important, not simply what feels most urgent or scary.

Research also shows that solitude boosts creativity and problem solving - skills critical to staying productive and focused.

Solitude helps you regain a sense of control

With all the chaos and uncertainty we’re living through, focusing inward can give you a greater sense of control over your life. This will help you make the best choices regarding your actions and commitments. “Quiet space provides an opportunity to think about your goals, your progress, and the changes you want to make in your life,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin.

Solitude also allows you to focus on what’s uniquely important to you - what brings you joy and gives you a sense of purpose.

Solitude is readily available

Practically speaking, solitude is readily available. You can step outside your door and take a walk by yourself, hop in your car for a solitary drive, or go into a quiet room of your house and shut the door. There are many ways to “do” solitude. You can engage in shorter bouts many times per day or seek it out once in a while for a longer period of time depending on what’s most helpful to you.

Woman, arms raised in joy, leans against a car at sunset

Finding the time for solitude can be harder with our busy schedules. In my next blog, I’ll suggest simple ways to carve out time and start a rewarding solitude practice that reduces stress and helps you live with more joy and purpose at this challenging time.

Solitude helps reduce stress and makes life richer and more rewarding. It improves our ability to stay positive and focused on what’s most important. Practicing solitude can make you feel more grounded when the outside world feels unmanageable and uncertain.