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Psychologists Offer Advice, Perspective On Loneliness

Apr 28, 2020

By: Aaron Cerbone | Lake Placid News

Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic can cause loneliness and anxiety. Local therapists have advice for how to improve your mental health during quarantine. (Provided photo — Metro Creative)

There is a side effect to staying healthy by isolating and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic: loneliness.

As the world’s citizens keep their distance from each other and cut themselves off from their usual social lives to stay at home, many may find the sudden lack of connection difficult.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise put out a call on social media for people who are lonely to talk for this article. Few responded, but loneliness is not an easy topic to discuss publicly.

Therapists in the area, however, are seeing the effect isolation has on mental health firsthand. They said loneliness is just one of the mental health effects the coronavirus has caused.

“Anxiety is high,” said Gina Jadwisiak from Counseling Connections ADK in Saranac Lake.

She said if someone was anxious before, it could be heightened now, as many of her clients are dealing with isolation, fear for themselves or worry about others. She is not getting many new clients, as she said people are likely uncertain about how start therapy now. However, she is seeing some of her graduated clients coming back now for help with getting through this time.

She said her biggest concern is seniors who have been locked into assisted living facilities for their own safety. She said one woman she talked to told her “everything in her life is shut down.” This woman’s usual schedule of seeing friends, getting coffee and going to church has been disrupted.

Solutions to the isolation blues

Nadine Case runs a psychotherapy practice in Saranac Lake. She said this extended period of isolation is a journey. Like running a marathon, she said it’s not best to focus on when it will end but rather to take it 10 feet at a time.

Jadwisiak and Case have advice for people whose lives have been turned upside down.

The first is to maintain routine. If you stay up late and wake up late, never change your clothes and stop showering, you’ll begin to feel the effects, they said. To feel “normal,” you have to maintain a normal routine.

Case compared this to the 1960s and 1970s television show “Hogan’s Heroes.” In the show, set during World War II, a group of American soldiers are held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. She said despite their strange and difficult situation, they maintained rank and operated as if they were still in service, with Col. Robert Hogan leading the group.

Both said routine is important because it means you are in control of something at a time when many events in the world are out of your hands.

Jadwisiak’s first piece of advice for her clients is usually to develop structure in their lives, but that’s hard to do today. So she said to start small and find something you can control, like a junk drawer or a closet.

This control, though unrelated, and ultimately symbolic, can help people cope with the larger situation.

Jadwisiak said when everyone was buying toilet paper en masse a few weeks ago, it was likely out of a desire to control something. Though there is a need for toilet paper, she said the panic buying was the result of people trying to maintain control over what they could.

Jadwisiak said instead of hoarding toilet paper, it is better to focus that energy somewhere productive, such as cleaning or creating. Case said these are both good options because, “accomplishment is hard to come by now.”

Being active is important, too.

“Our body is anxious,” Jadwisiak said. “It needs to move.”

She said when people are anxious, it activates the urge to fight, flight or freeze. If we choose to freeze, that only exasperates the situation. Jadwisiak said being sedentary means the chemicals roaming our bodies and minds, which dictate our moods, are also sedentary.

Going for a walk, getting sunlight and vitamin D, or elevating your heart rate gives the body a “spark” to start changing.

Case said it is a good time to read a book you’ve been meaning to get around to. She suggested “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the personal writings of a young girl hiding from the Nazis with her family in the Netherlands.

“She chronicled her 700 days in confinement within 450 square feet with 7 other people, some of whom she was not related to,” Case wrote in an email.

Case said to take it easy on yourself mentally at this time.

“Forgive yourself and the world for failures. There is relief and resurrection in forgiveness,” Case wrote in an email. “Don’t make any big decisions, especially financial and or emotional/romantic at this time. You are likely to be (over)reacting to transient conditions which are austere and challenging.”

Tele-therapy

Jadwisiak has moved her counseling sessions online, doing tele-therapy through video chat. She said around 20% of her clients did not want to meet his way and will just wait until they can talk face-to-face again. Others were hesitant but eventually glad they did it.

“I think that they were surprised that they could have as much connection as they can with the tele-therapy,” Jadwisiak said. “In fact, I have, too.”

She said she only did this occasionally before and never enjoyed it, but now she finds it enjoyable.

Case said she is still looking for the best way to meet her clients online. She said she wants to do audio-only sessions because she does not believe most videoconferencing apps are secure enough for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. She said the state is requiring audio-visual, though.

Staying connected

Both said they have found using technology to stay connected with family is very effective. However, some people may not find digital connection to be as fulfilling as others.

“We all have different styles of connecting with people,” Jadwisiak said. “Some people, they need that physical contact. So the ones who really need to have that touch, this is definitely very hard for them.”

She said writing letters may be a more physical mode of communication to try.

Case said to limit the length of video calls so that they don’t last all day.

“Pick a time and have that gathering for a specific time and limits of time,” Case wrote in an email. “It will become something to look forward to if it isn’t constant.”

She also advised not to immerse yourself in bad news or television.

“Stay abreast, but don’t be obsessed,” Case said.

Both said they are seeing a dichotomy in the ways people respond to isolation. While it may be difficult for some, others are finding out that they enjoy it.

“There are a lot of people on both sides of this,” Jadwisiak said. “Some are really suffering, and on the flip side, some people are really thriving.”

She said parents who are usually pulled between balancing work and home lives, now can see them together, and that they are finding great family moments.

Isolation experience

Melissa Wall responded to the Enterprise’s social media call to give her story of surviving loneliness and social isolation, and to let others know how she made it through.

In her message, Wall details how in the past four years, she has lost both her parents and her last grandparent to heart and lung disease, and two of her closest friends to depression and substance abuse.

“Their loss was devastating to me,” Wall wrote. “I never realized that my family were the only people I spoke to on a regular basis until they passed and there was nobody to talk to anymore.”

Wall said she was lonely. Her friends who still live in the area were busy with work and raising kids. She has two young children, but she and her significant other are both only children.

“I was as quarantined as all of you are now,” Wall wrote.

She said her loss was so sudden she was unable to cope.

“I eventually had to stop working because my depression was getting in the way of my work performance,” Wall wrote. “That’s when the financial struggles started.”

She sought professional help. Wall said she has talked to a counselor for a year, and it has “truly helped.”

“I was in this situation that people are most afraid of at this very moment,” Wall wrote. “Yes, it was terrible. It took years to recover. But I made it, and now I’m far from lonely.

“I know a lot of people have fears right now. ‘What if I lose my loved ones?’ ‘How can I afford two weeks of groceries?’ ‘How do I explain this to my children?’ … I’d just like to say, you can survive. There’s more than these fears.

“In all honesty, I have never felt more community than since the beginning of this social distancing. I’ve heard from friends I haven’t had time to speak to in years.”

Different experiences

Case said she works with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, including war veterans. Isolation looks different for these people, she said. Many of her clients prefer to not go out, so they are actually enjoying the comfort that society-wide social distancing gives them.

While they are comfortable, Case said this does not help their development and journey to move back into “normal” society. Case said worldwide difficulties can actually be a balm to those already in difficult times.

To explain this, she referenced a study from the Medical University of Vienna that found a high correlation between suicide rates going up on sunny days. She explained that this phenomenon is believed to occur because, when someone feels a dissonance between their mood and the rest of the world, that increases loneliness.

In short, misery loves company. And Case said since the whole world is suffering the miserable effects of coronavirus and isolation, that may be comforting to people around the world.

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