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How to Manage Loneliness During a Pandemic

Mar 16, 2020

Millions of people around the world are under self-quarantine and many more are practicing social distancing or just staying home. As a result, we have entered a period of global isolation which will keep many of us from seeing friends and family. With little clarity about how long this pandemic will persist, the risk of people experiencing loneliness is significant.

Loneliness is an important risk factor in any health crisis because it puts our bodies into a state of stress which can impact the functioning of our immune systems—and the poorer our immune systems function, the less effective they are in fighting off diseases like COVID-19. Indeed, one of the reasons the loneliness epidemic had been considered a public health threat even before the pandemic erupted, was how damaging chronic loneliness is, not just to our psychological health but to our physical health and longevity. Loneliness has been found to significantly increase our risk of an early death and is considered to be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Given how our health is impacted by feelings of emotional and social disconnection, monitoring whether we’re feeling lonely and taking steps to mitigate such feelings should we have them, are essential aspects of the physical and emotional self-care we need to practice during the crisis. To be clear, loneliness is a subjective feeling of disconnection, not an objective standard. You might be stuck at home with 10 other people yet still feel emotionally disconnected from them if you are not connecting in meaningful ways.

Here are a few things you can do if you do begin to feel lonely.

1. Use video conferencing to maintain normalcy. In times of crisis it is important to maintain normalcy wherever we can. If your weekly after-work drinks with your colleagues is no longer possible, get on a video conference call and have the get-together virtually (with or without the drinking). If you and a friend had plans to watch a show or movie together, cue your individual devices, get on a video chat, set the camera so you can see one another (not the screen) and start watching together. Then do what we don’t do enough in real life, spend time discussing what you watched.

2. Check in on people who live alone. Go through your address book and make a list of people who live alone or who might need support, and use text/email/phone to check in and have a chat with them. Helping others is one of those things that has just as much benefit, in terms of positive psychological and emotional impact, for the person doing the helping as for the person being helped. Loneliness is something we can actually crowdsource. If we all reached out to at least three people a day who might be feeling lonely, it could make a big difference overall.

3. Have meaningful conversations. Before the crisis, saying things like, I’m really freaked out or I’m so stressed was in the ‘sharing-deep-personal-feelings’ category that you would only say to a trusted close friend or relative. Now those same disclosures are pretty much ‘small talk’. Here’s what one neighbor in my building said to the other on the elevator last night.

Neighbor 1: “How are you?”

Neighbor 2: “Stressed and freaking out.”

Neighbor 1: “Me too. Bye!”

What makes us feel connected to others is not just the act of sharing our feelings, hopes, or fears but actually having a conversation about them once we do. So, make sure you drill down a bit and have a back and forth discussion, not just about how you’re feeling, but how you’re trying to manage those feelings.

We need to monitor our emotional health with just as much vigilance as we do our physical health, especially during a crisis that brings with it a period of elevated and prolonged stress. It is important to address emotional health issues such as loneliness and stress, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression when they arise, and prevent them from getting worse. There is a wealth of information online about psychological self-help and self-care strategies on this and other websites. Get informed, find the tools and techniques that work for you and be proactive in addressing your emotional and psychological needs.

Stay healthy, both physically and emotionally.

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