Loneliness & COVID-19: Ways To Manage Social Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest medical emergencies of recent history, not only because of the obvious dangers that the virus itself brings with it, but also due to the growing mental health crisis that has followed in its wake. Social distancing standards have changed how many of us work, learn, and live our lives, and while some have adapted to their time in isolation better than others, it’s hard to deny that most of us have felt a little lonelier due to COVID-19.

Loneliness isn’t some minor inconvenience either: it is a major determinant for our overall mental health,[i] with several cross-sectional studies having linked prolonged loneliness to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.[ii] It’s an issue that affects virtually every age group, though it tends to most dramatically impact our youngest and oldest generations: children and teenagers miss out on the vital development benefits that come from socializing and making friends, while older adults face potential physical and cognitive decline brought by time spent in isolation.

Of course, even if one recognizes the potential dangers of loneliness and extended social isolation, for many people there aren’t any easy solutions, especially if you are one of the over 36 million people across the country who live alone.[iii] If you’re struggling with loneliness due to COVID-19, consider these simple strategies.

  • Check in with your friends and loved ones: Even if you cannot physically visit people, just communicating with them can help both of you feel less alone. If you haven’t spoken to someone you are close to recently, call them up or a send a text. Alternatively, go more traditional and write a letter.
  • Set up a virtual hangout: Plenty of people have turned to Zoom and other online video systems to keep up with work, but you can easily do the same for hanging out with friends. Consider having a “party at home” where everyone can come together and share how they’ve been doing.
  • Write about how you are feeling: Research has shown that putting our feelings into words actually makes feelings like sadness, anger, and pain less intense.[iv] Writing down your feelings of loneliness and reflecting on them can help you past them.
  • Nurture others: One way to alleviate feelings of loneliness is to help raise and nurture something. Obviously, parents have their children, but this can also include pets or even plants. Helping someone or something can be very fulfilling.
  • Look back on some good memories: It might seem counterintuitive, but staving off loneliness doesn’t necessarily have to directly involve other people. Consider doing some activities that remind you of your loved ones: cook up your mother’s best recipes, dig out some old photographs, or sit down and watch a nostalgic movie.
  • Be mindful of negative thoughts: For those dealing with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, spending extended periods of time in isolation can exacerbate feelings of depression and result in negative self-talk. Be mindful of this.
  • Know when it’s time to reach out: As important as self-care is, don’t forget that sometimes you need to talk to a professional. Physically going to a therapist right now can be difficult, but there are several online options that you can turn to.

Time spent in extended isolation is rarely fun, but as long as you are mindful of how you are feeling and take meaningful steps to mitigate your loneliness, it is possible to mitigate its impact. The most important thing to remember is that even if you are feeling lonely, you aren’t alone. There are plenty of people dealing with the challenges of life in quarantine, and that sense of shared experience can actually help make it seem less daunting.

[i] Jeste, D. V., Lee, E. E., & Cacioppo, S. (2020). Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(6), 553. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0027

[ii] Beutel, M. E., et al. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x

[iii] Duffin, E. (2019, November 22). Single-person households United States 2019. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/242022/number-of-single-person-households-in-the-us/

[iv] Wolpert, S. (2019, May 10). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain; UCLA Neuroimaging Study Supports Ancient Buddhist Teachings. UCLA Newsroom. Retrieved from https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047

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