We asked an illustrator who’s passionate about demystifying our emotional states to annotate a conversation with an expert in the field. The result: this supremely relatable mini-guide to handling your toughest emotions.
Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, is a neuroscientist devoted to exploring how and why we experience emotions, and in many ways, artist Michelle Rial is dedicated to doing the same. In her new memoir, Wired for Love, Cacioppo makes the complex science behind how our brains process love and loss relatable by sharing her own story of finding and losing the love of her life—also a neuroscientist but in the field of loneliness. Graphic designer Michelle Rial’s most recent book, Maybe This Will Help, is a visual memoir that also looks within, using simple graphics and different kinds of charts—bar graphs, Venn diagrams, timelines—to convey complex feelings such as those about loss and chronic pain. Recently, I got on the phone with both of them—they’ve never met—to talk about love and loneliness, and then asked Rial to translate Cacioppo’s revelations and advice into disarmingly honest illustrations. Connecting with them was a reminder that, well, actually making an effort to connect can lift you out of all kinds of uncomfortable emotional spaces. Listen in...
Michelle Rial: Good morning. Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Stephanie Cacioppo: Hello. Let me say how humbled I am to meet you both. It’s really a great pleasure. Michelle, I love your work, your book, and your graphs, and you taught me how to overthink less—so thank you.
Julia Berick: I am so excited to have you both on the phone. In somewhat similar ways, your very different bodies of work help us understand emotions. Can you tell me about what drew you both to this effort to help us, the public, understand emotions?
SC: When I wrote my memoir, I really had two goals in mind: to share the science of my story but also the story of my science and how emotions can help us be more resilient and thrive even in the face of our challenges. Emotions are not basic instincts. They are more sophisticated than that. We have evolved to feel emotions but also to understand emotions in a deep, profound way. We are a social species. We need to look outward, and to understand others. That’s why I’m so thrilled and honored to be with you today, Michelle, because I think your work really speaks to that and how we can master our emotions and share them in a more sophisticated way with others.
We have evolved to feel emotions but also to understand emotions in a deep, profound way.
MR: I’m also very shy, by the way, and Dr. Cacioppo, I related to what you wrote in the introduction of your book about being private by nature. What I try to do in my work is draw attention to the things people don’t realize they’re thinking. In that sense, the overthinking is helpful in trying to relate to other people.
JB: You have both said you are shy people. What does it feel like to share yourself in your work?
MR: I wrote my second book during the peak of Covid isolation, which almost tricked me into thinking no one would ever read it. That helped me be more vulnerable because there was just no one around. In the introduction to your memoir, Dr. Cacioppo, you write that the people you are closest to will be the most surprised by the book. When friends tell me that they read it, I’m like, “Oh my God. You read that?”
SC: Yeah, I can relate to that totally. It’s easier to confide in strangers or the hairdresser than dear friends, because you can avoid their judgments. I learned the hard way that this life is about sharing my insight and my learning with others. If I survived the ordeal of the passing of the love of my life, anyone can do it. I had to open up and forget about myself, and just think about others and how my story could help.
MR: I’m wondering if you have advice for me, as a daughter, about how to help my mom, who is very lonely. She lost her husband; they were together from ages 16 and 17 to 72 and 73. She lives alone. She doesn’t have that many friends in the area. It’s Covid still….
SC: First, Michelle, so sorry to hear this. Second, the best thing you can do for your mom is to ask her for help. I know it sounds counterintuitive, right? Ask her for advice about your hairstyle, your career, your books. It can be anything. She will still see a sense of worth in her life if she can help you. You are her baby, and she needs to take care of you from an evolutionary viewpoint. Our brain evolved based on mutual aid and protection. And it’s not about financial aid; it’s about sharing experiences, sharing good times and sometimes challenges and struggles together.
MR: That’s good. I don’t do that. Thank you.
JB: Dr. Cacioppo, in reflection, has it been a bit of a silver lining to find that so many people need you and need your late husband Dr. John Cacioppo’s research at this moment in Covid?
SC: At first it was not; I have to be honest. I took his last name, so sometimes I receive emails from journalists [to Dr. Cacioppo] that were meant for John. At first, every one I received just reminded me that he was gone. Then I did what we call cognitive behavioral therapy to myself. I tried to remember how he always had this huge smile when he received emails like these, because he loved to share his science and his findings. When I share his knowledge and extend and expand our findings from when we collaborated together on the interventions to reduce loneliness, that was the silver lining, yes, absolutely. I could see a sense of worth by keeping his spirit alive but also in reinventing myself, in finding my new sense of worth and how my little life can be helpful to so many. It was really hard to survive his passing. And when I see I have an opportunity to help others, I can say yes, it was worth it to survive the ordeal, and I’m grateful to you all for that.
The Right Amount of Worry
MR: I want to ask about catastrophizing, like anticipatory grief, or anticipatory loneliness, even—worrying about the death of a loved one if they’re sick, or about the anxiety of losing someone you love even if they aren’t sick.
SC: Catastrophizing is key in this kind of process. There is this psychological mechanism we call defensive pessimism. You prepare for the worst but expect the best. It creates realistic expectations, and that’s healthy. But if you are only catastrophizing, not also seeing the possible good, that can be damaging to your well-being, because then you go into the spiral of rumination, negative self-talk. Let’s say you are ready to go for a run, and it’s really cold, like below freezing. Just be realistic and say, “It’s going to be cold. I’m going to try.” And then try. And if you go out for 10 seconds, that’s okay. At least you’ve tried. That really helps train your brain to be more objective rather than worrying about what hasn’t happened yet.
When it comes to loneliness, we have the choice to continue to feel lonely or not. Loneliness is a biological signal just like thirst. We never feel guilty to be thirsty, so why should we feel guilty to be lonely? We can embrace loneliness like we can embrace thirst. And then it’s our choice to do something about it or not. To drink water when we are thirsty or not. To connect with others when we feel lonely or not. It’s our responsibility to do something about it, to help ourselves before we can help others.
We can embrace loneliness like we can embrace thirst.
We can think about the acronym grace. Write a love letter to yourself today and be grateful for all the things you are doing for others and all the things you’re going through. That will help you and others—like your mother, Michelle—to feel that it’s about reciprocity. You have their back, but they have your back, too. Even if they are older, even if they are in a different situation, they can still help you. We should have a moment for ourselves and go exercise, go for a walk, go for a run, just so we can refuel and reenergize ourselves, and then help others. And that will help us feel less lonely and others feel less lonely as well.
The Cure for Loneliness
MR: Something I am curious about is the difference between being antisocial and having social anxiety. Is it okay to be alone sometimes? Is it okay to want to be alone sometimes? During most parts of Covid isolation, I thought I would really love to move to an island off the coast of Washington state, like the San Juan Islands. I would love to be completely remote, and that would be such a beautiful life. I’d listen to beautiful music and learn to play the guitar. And I didn’t see anyone in that vision. I loved this idea of solitude. And I would tell that to people and they’d say, “No, you need to be around people.” And I’m like, “No, I don’t.” But do I?
SC: One thing you said in your book is that as an only child, sometimes you don’t want to be with others. If you are like me, you learn as an only child to entertain yourself when you are by yourself. You had no choice, right? As an only child, I could have cried all day long because I was alone, or made the best of it and created value for myself, stargazed for hours and hours. It’s like survival mode. We did the most with the situation we had. So now we think, Lockdown, I can manage that!But also, we do need others to survive, and that’s what I learned in my journey. And really, my husband, John, taught me that I was happier with him. I thought I was self-sufficient, but I needed him. I needed him to survive, and we need others.
MR: Social avoidance seems like it creates a cycle. Is that true? As an only child, I often feel like I don’t want people around. Maybe I have a lower threshold for people’s idiosyncrasies. I think about my dad, who could also get irritated by people more easily. That created more loneliness for my mom. She and I both have social anxiety. Does this come from that loneliness? And does that social anxiety just build up if you don’t practice doing the things you mentioned?
SC: Yeah! If you are with others, sometimes that loneliness can fire back at you, right? Clinicians in the early days of loneliness studies tried to find ways to prevent loneliness. They thought, Oh, lonely people, let’s put them all together and they will be less lonely. But there is a paradox of loneliness. Loneliness is this biological signal that tells us we need to approach others to survive and feel less lonely. But at the same time, our brain, when it’s lonely, develops some tools to defend itself, to defend us, a vigilance that comes with isolation. It’s like our bodyguard. And so it’s all about self-preservation, to detect friends from foes. Your subconscious mind is looking for signs of foes. For instance, you’re on Zoom, and you see two colleagues giggling on screen. If you are lonely, you will immediately think they’re judging you. But choose to be curious and ask yourself, Why are they giggling? Could they be watching YouTube and a cat is doing sit-ups? And that will make you laugh, and that will put a very nice spin on the situation, and help reduce loneliness as well.
A Tall Glass of Happiness
JB: Can we store up positive experiences?
SC: The answer is: Yes, please. Have fun and share as much fun and good news with others as you can, because you will need that when the time comes. And that’s what I did with John. We created memories. We took photos and we traveled and we just had fun at home with our families. And it was all to build memories for me in the future. When you feel lonely, the best thing you can do is close your eyes, take a deep breath in, and then picture the last time you met your best friend, and laugh out loud. That brings a smile to your face immediately. You just activated your mirror neuron system [your ability to anticipate and reflect the actions and feelings of another person].
JB: Dr. Cacioppo, are there certain people who are more sensitive to loneliness than others?
SC: People who suffered early trauma in their life, or separation, are at risk to be more sensitive to loneliness. But it doesn’t mean that they cannot do anything about it. In general, loneliness doesn’t discriminate. We have different pain thresholds, integral pain thresholds, and emotional pain thresholds. But we can learn how to train our brain and our mind like we train our body. There is hope, really. And the key solution to feel less pain is to stay socially hydrated.
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