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Ask Izzy: Connecting through vulnerability during difficult times

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Photo by mikoto.raw Photographer / Pexels
Photo by mikoto.raw Photographer / Pexels

Ask Izzy is an advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Submit your question today by filling out this survey

Dear Izzy,

My mental health is bad right now. No matter how much I try to stay offline, I can't get away from all the pain happening all over the world, and it breaks my heart. I feel like there is nothing I can do to help the victims of oppression, and even when I try to advocate on social media, it only backfires. I feel so disconnected from everyone around me, even though I know I am not the only one suffering. I miss my friends, but going out to meet up with people is out of the question because of finances. What can I do to feel better that doesn't involve spending money?

— Lonely in Lynnwood

Dear Lonely,

I see you. You aren't alone in how you are feeling. Every day I wake up and feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders and there is nothing I can do to alleviate the pressure.

And according to the surgeon general, we aren't the only two people experiencing this. In a report published in May of this year by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of loneliness among young adults has increased every year between 1976 and 2019, and that number is only growing.

Before I get into possible solutions to help you feel better, I want to talk about a movie I watched recently on Netflix called Leave the World Behind. Based on the book by Rumaan Alam, it is about a family vacation that gets interrupted by two strangers bearing news of a blackout. As it progresses and we start to see that what started as a blackout is actually a terrorist cyberattack, both families grapple with how to survive the potential crisis while trying to find their own place in this collapsing world.

Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, the film has a lot of great takeaways, but the main thing I got from it is that the more technology we have in our lives, the further our divide is. And unless we make a change as a society, we are heading for our own downfall.

I believe that that change can be found in vulnerability and connection.

Right now, we are so disconnected in a time of trauma, war, and conflict, both externally and inside ourselves. While it would be really easy to spiral into a pit of despair given all of this, we aren't totally helpless.

The first thing you can do is check in with your body. Close your eyes, then place one hand on your heart and the other on your stomach. What is there? Notice how you are feeling, acknowledge whatever is present, and just sit with it. Nothing needs to change; no feelings need to be pushed aside. Just be with your pain. While this does not sound like much, what you are doing is giving yourself the attention your body is begging for, which is coming out as anxiety and fear.

The next thing you can do is take a walk outside in nature. Even better, call a friend and invite them to join you. It costs absolutely nothing to walk around the block and talk. And I don't just mean surface-level conversation about work and the weather. According to Dr. Brené Brown, a social worker and leading expert on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, "Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued." And to create this connection, you need to be vulnerable.

"What most of us fail to understand...is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave," says Dr. Brown. "Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity."

So while it may feel scary at first opening up to a new friend about what you are going through, it also opens you up for an opportunity to deepen that relationship in a whole new way.

While I know it won't be easy to step out of your comfort zone, I do believe that true connection is the future to alleviating our global suffering. Even just one small moment of connection can make a big difference in your life and the lives of all you touch.