My Experience of Chronophobia and the Isolation Within
When I came to Delhi to study a few years back, I was leaving behind a very sheltered and privileged lifestyle. As far as comfort of family and friends was concerned, I hadn’t foreseen what literal isolation could mean. True, I had had my ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ moments growing up. My parents were both working individuals, and my sister and I met only during dinner. But the very fact that they were only a shout’s reach away, or at a short drive’s distance, was an unconscious consolation that I took for granted. The two years at college whizzed past in a blur of people, friends, late-nights, papers, examinations, study groups and little trips.
What I did not allow my mind to register, even as I noticed it, was the lack of connection between all those things and myself. I didn’t care that I was putting up countless masks to get on with the people around me. I didn’t care that I had shut my inner ears and eyes, that I had silenced the voices inside my head. What mattered was that my days were full and I didn’t have time at hand to feel lost or empty.
After graduation, when everyone parted ways to chase their dreams, and I took up the first lucrative job that came my way, I realised that I’d dug myself a pretty tight grave. I began to see clearly my tendency of ‘filling up time’ with meaningless activities. I reached out to help people because I was incapable of helping myself. I made myself so busy with work that I could legitimately make an excuse out of it, to not have any time left for myself. I no longer read, or watched good films, or painted. I severed all contact with my friends. I mandatorily called my family once in a while, because, well, they were my parents. I had successfully formed an equation where my life became equal to my work. When my boyfriend left me to visit his hometown for a couple of months, I experienced the full blow of isolation. I hadn’t realised how parasitically dependent on him I had become for my own happiness. The sense of loneliness was so strong that I filled my time watching absolute junk on YouTube. It was easier to do that than face myself…
I’m speaking as though all this happened a decade back. I’m speaking as though I didn’t binge watch ‘DIY’ videos till my eyes popped, only last night. Fifteen hours and a lunch later, I decided to switch off the lights and allow the murky grey of the rainy weather to float in.
The light from the laptop is too white and strong - a distraction. I will shut this and keep it away. I will try to focus on the sounds I can hear, the fan, the breeze, the rumbling.
This has been long, long, long due.
Confronting Your Fear
Letting myself sink
When I closed my eyes and lied down, I felt myself drowning into a state that I can only describe as a haze of fear and anxiety. In other words, the root emotion wasn’t ‘loneliness’ or ‘isolation’ at all, but fear, deep and intense fear. I experienced it as a fluttering sensation in my chest. I also noticed that I wasn’t breathing right. My breaths were short and incomplete. They were neither deep nor full.
Grappling for control
My first, instinctive action was to start thinking things. An array of unrelated thoughts hurtled inside my head, and none of them had anything to do with the fear I was feeling. I tried to calm myself down. I tried to narrow down on to a single thought that might have something to do with my fear, but alas, the minute I did that, my head went blank, leaving only the fluttering sensation in my chest.
I realised that there was nothing I could do at that moment to stop the fluttering or the barrage of distracting thoughts. What I could do was gain control of my breathing. So, I started breathing deeply and completely, allowing the oxygen to actually rise and fill my chest. The experience of having so much air inside the chest was so unique for my body that I almost felt light-headed. Even my nose started tingling! Slowly, however, I continued the exercise of breathing in and breathing out. I was conscious of each breath filling up the cavity of my chest. By doing this, I unconsciously diverted my mind from the feeling of fear, and the cacophony of thoughts no longer had to explode in my head because I didn’t need any distraction from my fear at that particular moment. I was too focused on simply breathing properly.
Recognising my fear
Once I was in control of my breathing, and the fluttering had become less overwhelming, I was able to walk my mind through the potential factors of my fear.
Am I afraid of people?
Am I afraid of the unknown, the uncertainties?
Am I afraid of rejection?
The questions kept coming and going, flowing past like a stream, until I hit upon a rock.
Am I afraid of the future? Am I afraid of time running out? Am I afraid of not being able to do enough, be enough, and see enough before the last grain falls?
Is that the reason I’m cramming my clock-time with endless activities, so that I don’t feel like I’m wasting time? And in doing that, I’m denying myself the realisation of actual days slipping by, while I play at work, YouTube videos and self-deluding busyness.
Prisoner of the Mind
We speak of freedom from society, freedom from anarchy, freedom from institutional policing, while never addressing the most dangerous prison of all – our own mind. A little research while I was typing down this article led me to discover a phobia that goes by the name of chronophobia. It is defined as the persistent and often irrational fear of the future or the fear of passing time. It is said to be common in prison-inmates and elderly people, understandably, but can be triggered in any individual by traumatic incidents of the past, like the loss of a loved one.
While prisoners spend great lengths of time within physical cells, many of us confine ourselves to our minds. We stay inside our little black holes, so much so that we develop psychological neurosis.
Symptoms of Chronophobia
Feeling completely detached from reality: In other words, even as we immerse ourselves in work, acquaintances, activities and such, we are actually totally detached from all of it. This often leads to confusion, feeling of ‘not belonging there’, feeling lost and depressed.
Having panic attacks at the thought of time passing by: What I described earlier in the article as experiencing fluttering in my chest was actually a panic attack. Similarly, one can feel breathless, have heart palpitations, experience dizziness and fainting, sweat profusely, and, in general, feel completely out of control.
Feeling lost: This isn’t a unique feeling, and it does not mean that anyone who feels lost has chronophobia. Nevertheless, it is a symptom in our present case. When too much time is spent within the confines of our mind, while being mentally detached from reality, we can develop a plethora of psychological conditions – fear and anxiety are only very common ones. It isn’t surprising that I feel lost when I lie down at night at the end of the day.
Feeling like running away, crying and trembling: Again, a very common but strong feeling. Heaven knows I’ve felt it many times, even recently. The fear that we fear seems out of control, the very situation feels beyond our grasp, and the first and most powerful impulse is to run away. But how can we run away from something that is inside our own skin?
Having overwhelming thoughts of death and dying: The above symptom giving way to intense death-wish. When we want to run away from something, yet know that we cannot really do it, is it surprising that we wish to cut off the very source which produces these feelings in the first place?
Re-connecting with Yourself
Recognising one’s fears is crucial, but the steps that we take after that is what can save us from doom. A great number of people, maybe even you, suffer from intangible fears. And because they are intangible, we avoid them like the plague; we ignore the signals that our body constantly throws at us by distracting our minds and senses with endless activities. We end up splitting and tearing our self from our inner-being, only to create confusion and chaos in our lives.
The first step to rid ourselves of fears, not just chronophobia, is to re-connect with our inner self - the self we see in the mirror but move our eyes away from, the self that raises its head at night but we drown it with music or online chatter. I write as I realise the very things that I myself do, day after day.
Now that I have realised one of my major fears and its source, my project in the coming days will be to try and bridge the gap between who I think I am and who I really am. When I’m partially successful, or have figured out a few ways in which I can do it, I will be back with another article. Till then, I wish all of you who took time to read this, all the very best in figuring out what your fear is. We are not alone. Our strongest friend lies within us. Let us get back to them.