I am a classic extrovert.
About 10 years ago, I would say my biggest fear in the world was to be alone. When my romantic partner used to leave town to travel for work, my heart would fill up with dread at the thought of sitting in a quiet home by myself. I would plan, for weeks in advance, all of the ways I could inject social activities into my day. I will admit it here: sometimes I (still) make trips to the market for the purposes of getting “out” into the world and maybe talking to a nice human about kale or something.
I should also state that I am also highly anxious by nature. So, being alone used to terrify me because it often meant that my anxiety took hold of the proverbial mic. I would be much more inclined to pay attention to that anxious narrative.
Over time I have learned some tools for how to be alone and actually enjoy it.
So, for all my fellow social animals, here is a guide to stillness for the anxious extrovert.
Fill your mind with fruitful notions.
It’s true that our thoughts and expectations can determine how we experience life events. I found that a great way to set the psychological stage for delight is to read something that inspires me, makes me smile, or makes me swoon. Rumi - The Essential Rumi, Anne Lamott - Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Tara Brach - Radical Acceptance: Awakening the Love that Heals Fear and Shame, Pema Chodron - Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion are some of my favorite “go-to” authors and books for inspiration.
Delight in Sensory Experiences.
I am a proponent of the theory of embodied cognition. This is a psychological theory that states that the body is not merely a vessel for the expression of thoughts and emotions, but that our physical (embodied) states and experiences may also influence or manufacture thoughts and emotional states.
That said, when I want to generate mental stillness and calm, I start by bringing physical stillness to my body. I may sit in meditation or do some yoga (more on yoga to follow).
Sometimes I take another shortcut to calm, by way of the unconscious pathway of olfaction (smell). Studies find that essential oils like citrus and lavender can effectively reduce anxiety and enhance mood in stressful situations [1- 3]. One study compared the effects of orally administered lavender oil with a widely used anti-anxiety medication, lorazepam, and found that lavender oil was equally as effective as lorazepam in reducing symptoms for people living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder . Please note, it is important to ingest only high quality, food-grade lavender. I have recently become an essential oils advocate, so for those of you interested in learning more about essential oils, please feel free to contact me with questions.
In addition to taste and smell, I enjoy delighting in my tactile (touch) sense. The work of Dacher Keltner tells us that touch is one of the most important tools for communicating compassion . I try to meet any tension or pain I am carrying in my body (for me, it’s usually the neck and shoulders) with compassion, using a therapeutic balm of essential oils to knead my muscles as I practice taking deep, relaxing breaths. This combination of breathing and therapeutic touch provides feedback signals to the brain that promote mental wellbeing.
To stimulate my visual senses, I simply go outside and look for something beautiful to set my gaze upon. I also use this as an exercise in mindfulness. When was the last time you sat and appreciated the colors, lines, shapes, motion of a flower, as though it was the very first time you had ever seen it? Just think of all the opportunities for beauty we might miss if we don't consciously seek these moments to marvel at our surroundings from time to time.
Listen to Vinyl Records.
“There's a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” ― Nick Hornby
Let's not forget the miraculous emotional power of our auditory senses. Music is one way to bring about a spontaneous emotional reaction. It's even better when you listen to your favorite song on vinyl. I used to think collecting vinyl was just another way for hipsters to parade their sophistication for all to see. But, there is truly nothing like it in the world. If you enjoy music, you should think seriously about buying a record player and pursuing a relationship with vinyl records. There is something uncommonly beautiful about the act of putting on a record and listening closely to the rich quality of sound captured on vinyl.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks has written about the many mental and emotional effects of listening to music. Among these effects, Sacks describes the transcendental potential for music to elicit a state of sublimation and ecstasy . When I am seeking this sublime state of musical reverie, I prefer to sit with my eyes closed (or lie in savasana) and listen attentively, as I let my mind surrender to the wild imaginings of my favorite musical artists. I recommend Bjork and Radiohead as place to begin your transcendent musical journey.
There is no science to it, but I light incense for two reasons: 1) I enjoy the smell, 2) I regard it a gesture or a symbol of my intention to create a space for contemplation. I may be at my house, but it is my way of marking a special moment for inward attention.
Not everyone enjoys the sensory experience of lighting incense. But, for those of you who know you like incense, or are interested in trying some: I really love the scent of the Bursera graveolens tree, also known as palo santo. For the medical anthropologists, palo santo is connected with a lot of Folk medical traditions. Today you can find it in many healthy stores or online as an oil or as a small stick that can be burned, similar to a standard incense stick.
Give Yourself the Spa Treatment.
There is a scientific reason behind this one. Grooming is adaptive for all animals, to sustain health and hygiene. But, if you are like me, on most days you find yourselves rushing to get ready quickly before work, which means that sometimes the artistic details of grooming can be overlooked. So, when I have the luxury of time alone, I like to pay extra attention to grooming. I use my favorite Rose Hip Oil, braid my hair, or paint my toenails with nature-inspired colors . To some this may sound trite, but this has always been an intuitive ritual that I have enjoyed since I was old enough to do it.
Food is such a vital component of health and self-care. It is also a way to reconnect with our families, cultures, and identities. As an emigré, my knowledge and access to my native Persian culture is relatively limited. That is why I truly cherish the art of cooking, especially when I can create dishes that remind me of my family. In this act, I show kindness to myself using the very same recipes that my family once used to nourish me. In fact, as soon as I turned 18 and moved out of the house, I made it my mission to “apprentice” in the kitchen alongside my family and friends, to record their recipes and learn their techniques. This is not to say that everything I ever make turns out perfect. I have no shame in calling for pizza when necessary. Still, cooking is an act of creativity and love that I enjoy practicing as often as I can. If you are curious about the treasures of Persian cooking, here’s a great book to check out: Joon by Najmieh Batmanglij.
I crave yoga everyday. I find it necessary to maintain a daily practice, even if I'm just home alone. I do love to attend classes and get inspired by new instructors. However, I might not always have the time or funds necessary to attend daily yoga classes. So, I create sanctuaries at home. I actually have two spaces devoted to my home practice. Sometimes I set my mat outside to practice yoga outdoors. Other times, I just light some candles and set up my mat in the living room. I have been practicing yoga for over a decade, but I am just now becoming more consistent with my practice.
I can truly attest to the benefits yoga can provide: I have become stronger, more flexible, and less susceptible to injury. The benefits of yoga surpass the one hour of asana (postures) I practice on my mat. I have noticed that the quality of my thoughts and my ability to deal with daily challenges is proportionate to the consistency of my practice. Yoga teaches me how to stay present in times of discomfort: how to learn to breathe in challenging moments, without frantically seeking to escape. Yoga teaches me that sometimes I might even find bliss in the midst of a struggle. Yoga teaches me that I can allow myself to be open to the possibility of bliss at any time, both on and off the mat.
I would love to share this practice with you! For those of you in the San Diego area, you can find my weekly schedule on the Auteur Health and Wellness Instagram or facebook page. If you are interested in starting an at-home practice with me, you can find guided instructional videos available for purchase, by visiting the Gifts tab on my website.
I hope by revealing some of my personal practices, I can inspire others to enrich their solitude with self-compassion. To my fellow anxious extroverts, I hope you get a chance to try some of these activities and find them emotionally and mentally supportive when you are in need of a little extra care.
1. Lehrner, J., Marwinski, G., Lehr, S., Johren, P., & Deecke, L. (2005). Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office. Physiology & Behavior, 86, 92-95.
2. Kritsidima, M., Newton, T., & Asimakopoulou, K. (2010). The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: a cluster randomised‐controlled trial. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology, 38, 83-87.
3. Bradley, B. F., Brown, S. L., Chu, S., & Lea, R. W. (2009). Effects of orally administered lavender essential oil on responses to anxiety‐provoking film clips. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 24, 319-330.
4. Woelk, H., & Schläfke, S. (2010). A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine, 17, 94-99.
5. Keltner, D. (2010). Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
6. Sacks, O. (2006). The power of music. Brain, 129, 2528-2532.