What social distancing has taught us about feeling less alone

It was evident at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that many of us were going to face a year of at least some loneliness. After all, being told to stay home, work from home, and stop gathering meant a lot of us had to cut a lot daily social interactions.

For some it was extremely difficult. Some 27% of respondents to a national survey conducted by Harvard and the University of North Carolina said they felt very or extremely lonely, the researchers observed in their national report on the emotional impact of the pandemic in June 2020.

Another survey of 2,000 people who received care at the Mayo Clinic found that many people, and especially women, increased their feelings of loneliness during the pandemic, according to Social Sciences and Medicine in April 2021.

But many of us have also found new ways to deal with loneliness, through Zoom’s happy hours, phone calls, and maybe making new connections with people we have been able to interact with.

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Whatever your situation is living with a global pandemic, psychologists say there are important lessons about loneliness that we can all learn from this unusual year and a half that can also help us cope better with loneliness at times. non-pandemic.

“With families fragmented and people moving regularly or in transition, there is a lot of loneliness in our culture,” says Judith Gulko, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Coral Springs, Florida.

The American Psychological Association defines loneliness as the cognitive discomfort or discomfort of being or perceiving oneself as being alone – or there is a gap between an individual’s desired and actual social relationships.

By definition, loneliness is not about how many relationships you have or don’t have or whether or not you are more confined to the home due to pandemic restrictions or not. It’s about the negative feeling that comes from a gap in the connections with other people you want and the connections you actually have, says Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, speaker on global health and social medicine at. Harvard Medical School.

And therefore feeling lonely can indeed have significant consequences on our emotional health.

“Left unnoticed, these emotions lead people down the path of self-destructive behaviors to mask or numb feelings of loneliness,” says Shari Botwin, therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and author of the book. Thrive after trauma. The most extreme are alcoholism, drugs and eating disorders, she notes.

Loneliness in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was frequently associated with depression and anxiety, according to a study published in November in Frontiers in Psychiatry find.

But loneliness should not weaken us. The past year has shown us that we are stronger than we thought, and even when we are immersed in situations that might make us ripe to feel lonely, we can find new ways to bond and respond. to our emotional needs.

Here are the lessons psychologists say they hope we all learn from the experience of going through an isolating global pandemic when it comes to tackling loneliness in other situations in the future.

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1. Loneliness is a state of mind

Some of us have spent this year COVID-19 alone, but others had many family members in our homes. Either way, people can feel lonely because it’s not so much a situation as it is a state of mind, says Dr Nobel, who is also president of the Foundation for Art & Healing, a goal-oriented organization. Brookline, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that promotes art as a vehicle for health and happiness

“You can be alone and not feel alone, and you can feel alone without being alone,” Nobel said. You can usually tell the difference between the two by wondering if this bothers you, he says.

Pro tip to feel less alone When you’re feeling lonely, it helps to have someone you can express that emotion to, Botwin says. A 15-minute phone call to a close friend to share your feelings can combat loneliness more than spending the day with someone you feel emotionally distant from, she says.

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2. Loneliness can lead to negative self-talk, but self-compassion can help

Being alone can promote self-judgment, Botwin says. Loneliness is often a sign that something is missing in your life; and that something can be self-compassion or self-love. “The danger of spending too much time alone is that some people spend it demeaning and demeaning who they are as a person,” she says.

And that’s why learning to be comfortably alone is a skill that takes work, as many discovered over the past year. Rather than letting that negative self-talk take over, Botwin suggests showing yourself a little kind.

Pro tip to feel less alone One technique Botwin loves is talking to himself in the mirror. Stand before your reflection and remind yourself of all the things you did well and all the reasons you need to be grateful, she says. With this inner talk and personal reflection, it is easier to befriend yourself and release the negative and critical state of mind that might otherwise plague you.

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3. Good Connections Can Happen Even When We Are Physically Separated

Digital technology has long been a staple of our lives, but last year it has helped us in new ways.

From business activities and socializing to medical and mental health care appointments, online tools have allowed us to stay in touch with others while respecting social distancing.

“People have created Zoom parties, big family reunions, online book clubs and even attended weddings and other special events online,” says Gulko. Introverted people can especially benefit from online events, she notes, as they can spend an hour with others and then log out and reset.

In a May 2020 review published in the Internet medical research journal the researchers concluded that the application of digital technology “has become critical during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Pro tip to feel less alone Now that everyone has become more adept, it will be easier to continue using technology to stay in touch with friends and family who live far away, Botwin says. It won’t replace face-to-face interactions, but it can be a useful tool for staying in touch with those who are more difficult to meet in person.

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4. The arts are particularly good at fighting loneliness

The Nobel Foundation has launched an initiative called UnLonely Project, which provides services to use art as a means of connection, including working with community groups to encourage members to create and share art, and hosting an annual festival. from the movie UnLonely.

“People are more resilient and have a better quality of life after participating in collective art creation and sharing activities,” he says. Music therapy, for example, can help relieve feelings of depression and anxiety. Research shows other forms of art therapy can help improve mood, combat distress, self-esteem and cope, according to a 2015 review in the journal Health technology assessment.

RELATED: 5 ways to use art to change your mindset

One of Botwin’s clients who has lived alone for years realized during the pandemic how much she loved to paint. “Through this job, she learned to feel a purpose and a satisfaction to fight against loneliness,” she says.

Pro tip to feel less alone You don’t need any training or even a talent to paint, draw, color, dance or sculpt to feel the joy that comes with making art. Pick an activity that sounds intriguing and give it a try.

5. Consistency breeds connection

Regularly scheduled fun might seem a bit square, but therapists agree that knowing when and how you can catch up with someone you’re close with can help ease the loneliness.

First of all, as many of us have discovered, putting something on the schedule increases the chances of it happening. It also gives you something to look forward to. If you’re feeling lonely today but know something is planned for tomorrow, it can ease the negative feeling, Gulko says.

Pro tip to feel less alone Pick a time and schedule for regular calls, walks, or meeting with friends or family. Choose the frequency that works for you.

Or consider volunteering for a cause you believe in, whether it’s going out or doing things around the house, like planning events, making calls, or writing letters. “Volunteering is great for reducing isolation and creating meaning, two things that help people feel more satisfied with their lives,” says Gulko.

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