It may sound paradoxical but often when we feel afraid and isolated, helplessness can become a familiar place, and even dangerously safe. When we suffer from anxiety problems, loneliness, emptiness as many are today, people will often retreat into a “Bubble of Misery.”
This bubble is a personal space decorated with one’s fears, biases, and blame. Regardless, it is theirs and therefore more appealing than the uncertainly that resides outside of its borders.
Biologically, fear serves a purpose. It signals to us when there may be a threat within our environment. When signaled, it allows us to be sharp, vigilant and improves our problem-solving ability.
When the fear is constant, chronic, or shattering, our body becomes overwhelmed, fatigued and our ability to problem solve gets seriously impaired.
The risk of retreating into a protective bubble is that vulnerable people may take up permanent residence there. A place in which they feel both safe and sad. The longer one stays in the bubble, the safer it feels but also the more dysfunctional life becomes.
As a psychiatrist, I treat people with serious and severe mood and anxiety disorders that have developed strong “Bubbles of Misery.” These individuals become so habituated to living in this mental space that the thought of peeking outside of the bubble becomes terrifying.
COVID-19, with its demands for isolation and intense uncertainty, pushes many further into their bubbles, further worsening in their ability to relate to themselves and others.
We all have our bubbles of misery. It is part of our evolved survival mechanism. However, one must be able to allow for subconscious entry into this safe space as well as an exit when danger subsides.
Chronic anxiety and depression make us feel quite vulnerable. For some, this places them inside that bubble for long periods. They can become so ensconced that even psychiatric medications and support cannot lower the overwhelming feelings of fear, dread, and anxiety. Instead, they become trapped.
Though medications and traditional therapies may be ineffective, there is one method that can help these individuals. That is Community Empathy.
Empathy is a concerned response to another individual’s feelings. To have empathy, one must be able to notice and understand others’ feelings and reflect that understanding to them. Community Empathy is much the same but in groups settings—social groups, families, and communities.
Right now, more than ever, we need to be empathetic to those around us. Understand that many are uncertain, afraid, and suffering too. Instead of reacting with uncontrolled emotion and volatility, we must try and respond with empathy as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.
If we are to emotionally able to survive this pandemic, we have to be able to recognize our vulnerabilities and those of others. When people are suffering, they don’t need criticism and/or rejection. They need empathic and non-critical listening. A comforting smile, head nod, or kind word can go a long way in comforting others.
Nevertheless, many who have retreated into their bubble are stuck and have no plans on exiting any time soon. For those of us on the outside looking in, we need to be aware of their fear and comfort in that space.
Reaching into someone else’s bubble can be risky. It must be attempted with patience and care. Just as one can piece a soap bubble without popping it, it must be done slowly and with great patience and care.
Remember, the more we criticize those who are suffering, the stronger the bubble grows. Be mindful of those who are retreating into these safe areas. Also, be mindful of your own.
The bubble is a temporary space into which we all must retreat at times. Like our homes now, one must eventually walk back out once the fear and uncertainly has passed.
Stay safe and wear a mask.
Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino is the clinical voice of The Only You (Solo Tú), a podcast dedicated to simplifying the complex issues of the mind and mental illness. Originally from Mexico, Dr. Amezcua-Patino has been practicing in the metropolitan Phoenix area for over 30 years. Twitter: @SuSaludMental.