We are living in unprecedented times. We continually hear news reports of rising numbers of coronavirus infections, not only in our nation but around the world. We see the hashtag #AloneTogether everywhere we turn, a constant reminder that even if people are physically isolated due to quarantine, we are all in this fight together.
For those of us who are currently incarcerated, isolation from the rest of society is sadly nothing new. Some of us have experienced this for decades. Before COVID-19 hit, we already knew about social distancing in every sense of the word.
Around the world, government officials have implemented varying degrees of increased restrictions, modifying movements to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus. This has caused everyone’s sense of normalcy to be turned upside-down and their sense of isolation, anxiety, depression, and loneliness to increase substantially.
We are not able to see or physically embrace our friends and loved ones like we usually would. We cannot have visits with them. We’re not able to participate in or watch sports, or even exercise, the same way. Face-coverings have become part of our normal everyday attire. Face-coverings in prison were previously prohibited but are now actually required and subject to disciplinary sanctions if we don’t wear them when we are out of our cells.
As prisoners who are used to dealing with isolation, I can provide simple coping methods. After all, we are experts on the topic.
I am a certified community coach who practices and teaches others effective cognitive-behavioral techniques for positive decision-making not only to cope with isolation but also to cope with everyday challenges that life throws our way.
Although I was aware of these techniques, I didn’t truly comprehend them until I met the founder of a non-profit organization called Getting Out by Going In (GOGI). It was then I was introduced to a set of tools called “The GOGI Tools for Positive Decision Making.”
GOGI has twelve psychological and cognitive-behavioral techniques that are so simple, even children can apply them. No matter who or where you are, we each have to make a conscious decision about how we are going to deal with this time and the isolation it brings. Will you focus on the problems or will you use your time to manage those problems?
Many prisoners like myself have chosen the latter and we’re better for it.
Three GOGI Tools that have helped me throughout my carceral isolation from society are called “Boss of My Brain,” “Belly Breathing,” and “Five Second Lightswitch.” “
“Boss of My Brain” asks you to start identifying the part of your brain you are using at any given moment. Is it the smart part, where opinions, emotions, drama, etc., come from? Or is it the old habit part, where habits automatically show up when they’re needed? Simply ask yourself, “Which part of my brain is the boss or in charge right now?”
Many people run on negative emotions or old negative habits and, as a result, tend to not make positive decisions. This tool helps you recognize whether you are acting from old negative habits and allows you to make a conscious decision to think and act in a smart way. After all, you are your boss.
The next tool is called “Belly Breathing.” This is deep breathing at its finest. It calms you down and relaxes you, allowing you to receive more oxygen into your body. More oxygen traveling through your body means more oxygen for your brain. This gives your brain more clarity of thought when you make decisions, especially those that are life-changing.
Using this tool is simple: Put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly, and breathe in and out. Pay attention to which hand is moving most. If the hand on the belly is not moving, breathe so that air flows to the lower part of the lungs. One way to do this is to imagine that the air you’re breathing in has to travel to your feet. Practice regularly until you are able to master it.
Although you may have become accustomed to feeling anxious, down, or in a negative way, it is not a healthy state to be in. I use this tool as much as possible to stay in a relaxed state of mind.
During this time of isolation, the temptation to focus on the negative is so easy. A thought would cross my mind and the next thing I know I’m thinking and acting negatively. This is where the “Five Second Lightswitch” comes in handy.
With this tool, you can swap or switch negative thoughts for ones that are more powerful, productive, and positive.
To use this tool, notice your thought and determine whether it is positive or negative. If it is negative, make the purposeful decision to take positive action instead of your habitual negative one. This positive action can be thinking, saying, or doing something positive. The goal is to implement or do it within five seconds.
For example, I use it when someone is disrespectful to me. Instead of dwelling on the negativity and responding in kind, my positive action may be telling the person, “God bless you,” and walking away. It’s that simple. Try to have five go-to positive actions that you can use at any time within five seconds.
I’m sure the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has made many of you feel like you’re incarcerated. These tools have helped me and many others deal with the isolation of actual incarceration. Even though I’m used to isolation, the further isolation from this pandemic has increased negative feelings, emotions, and thoughts and has tried to overtake me again and again.
My journey hasn’t been perfect. However, each time I fall, I get up and continue forward. The GOGI tools have played a major role in my ability to succeed over negativity.
Although these times are difficult, we can all be a positive influence in our families and in our communities. I hope that my personal experience and the tools I use will help. Even if you only try one, just do it. Don’t forget: YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR ISOLATION.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.