Whether living alone, with family members, or roommates most of us are facing some degree of loneliness during this time of social isolation and COVID-19. And there’s no getting around the fact that loneliness has a profound impact on our mental health. We aren’t able to have the usual in person interactions that provided a sense of belonging and community that as human beings we need. You may also be noticing now with less in person interaction how much these connections with others kept you afloat, feeling a sense of ease and joy, before the pandemic hit.
During this time of social isolation we now confront the uncomfortable experience of loneliness. Loneliness is a natural human emotion that every human being experiences. It can feel all-consuming, overwhelming, and, at times, debilitating. Like all emotions, loneliness comes and goes. However, serious issues can arise when loneliness becomes chronic as it affects a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health.
According to one study, co-published by Louise Hawkley, chronic loneliness has been linked to depression, poor sleep quality, and even a weakened immune system.
Loneliness can set in when an individual feels they do not have adequate social, emotional, or financial support. Feelings of loneliness also occur whether you are surrounded by people or not. Therefore, loneliness and its implications for your health depends on the quality of connection you have with other people, as well as the quality of connection you have with yourself.
With most of us under strict order to stay home and maintain social distancing when we are around people, it is important to notice how loneliness is impacting your mental health.
So, how do you cope with loneliness?
First, it is important to acknowledge that it is an unrealistic expectation to completely eliminate loneliness. However there are action steps a person can take – especially during this time of social isolation – to mitigate and move through the feelings of loneliness that arise.
9 ACTION ITEMS YOU CAN TAKE DURING SOCIAL ISOLATION TO COPE WITH LONELINESS
There is no “one size fits all” protocol for how to cope with loneliness. Below are some suggestions of practices and action items for you to navigate your own natural rhythm through this process. You are encouraged to explore and see what is helpful for you and what is not. As always, please reach out to a mental health professional if you are in need of additional support.
- Practice the RAIN mindfulness technique. RAIN is a four-step process that stands for “Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Natural Awareness or Non-idenfitication.” In the first step, Recognize what you are experiencing and feeling. Next, Allow what you are experiencing to be exactly as it is without attempting to change or fix it. Then Investigate your experience with self-compassion and as little judgment as possible. Finally, Natural Awareness comes from not identifying with the situation or experience. In other words: you are not your loneliness. With Natural Awareness you might begin to see some separation between who you are and what you experience: the emotions, feelings, and sensations that come and go. You can find more RAIN resources by visiting Tara Brach’s website.
- Schedule one phone or video call per week with a friend or family member. Treat these calls the same way you would schedule meeting up with a friend for a coffee or walk. If you are able to schedule more than one call per week, go for it! If not, one call per week is certainly sufficient. The intention is simply to have something on your calendar where you know you’ll be making a personal connection with someone. It may give you something to look forward to and alleviate the pressure of making time to connect with other people when you are in the midst of feeling lonely. While on this call, put anything away that might distract you such as your phone and immerse yourself in the connection you are cultivating with the other person. Be as attentive to them as possible when you listen because often we feel more connected when we feel valued by other people. In the same vein, you can ask your friend to hold space to listen to you. Share as little or as much as you feel comfortable with.
- Write a letter or email to a trusted, beloved friend or family member. In this letter you might let them know how you’ve been spending your time during social isolation – including what you’ve enjoyed as well as what challenges you’ve faced. If you are writing a hand-written letter, you can also get creative with including drawings, different colored pen or pencils, and even sending a handmade creation to your friend.
- Take a walk in your neighborhood and say hello to anyone you pass by. Leave your phone at home so you can focus as much of your attention as possible on your movement (walking) and engagement with others as you say/nod hello. Notice these small, yet powerful interactions with others that can occur even while honoring social distancing. Consider making relaxed yet meaningful eye contact with those you pass by. This can be a useful action item if you aren’t feeling up for a full on conversation with someone but are seeking some human to human connection. Notice how people respond when you wave, say hi, or smile at them. Not everyone will smile back! But you might be surprised at the responses you draw out of people.
- Do a body scan. When you feel lonely, where do you experience the loneliness in your body? It might be a tightening in your chest or a tingling pins and needles sensation in the back of your neck. Set a timer for 5-15 minutes and sit (or lie down) with the physical sensation of loneliness in your body. See if you can close your eyes as you do the body scan. Does the loneliness sensation have a color? What about a shape? Maybe place a hand over the part of your body where you physically notice the loneliness. Sometimes when you experience loneliness you are also missing physical touch so you can offer yourself some compassionate touch just by placing your hand over your heart or belly. Give the sensation all of your attention for the selected duration of time. If it helps, play some music that helps you ground and relax.
- Share how you are feeling with someone you trust. Whether it be a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional, sometimes describing your feelings to someone can really help lighten the load. Let the person know that you just need them to listen and be a trusting refuge for you at this time. If you don’t already have a therapist or other mental health professional, we advise seeking one out.
- Attend a virtual group workout. There is an abundance of Zoom workouts during social isolation and it is a great way to exercise with others and feel the sense of community we as humans need. Attending a virtual workout also benefits those who are more introverted but still would like to share some time with other people. Also, moving the body in a mindful, intentional way can really help shift your mindset and move emotions that are pent up or stuck.
- Make a list of people in your life who support you. This is a simple practice that can remind you that you are not alone, despite the loneliness you are feeling. Include those that support you in major ways, such as friends and family, but also those who’s support is still meaningful but perhaps less obvious, like a friendly neighbor or store clerk. Once you’ve made your list, select one or two people to write a thank you note to. You may choose to send the letter or hold onto it. The purpose of this action step is to experience gratitude which can almost immediately give us a sense of connection to the world around us.
- Spend time doing something you love to do, alone. Whether it be writing, painting, playing music, exercising, baking — choose an activity or something you like to do or that you’re interested in learning more about and spend some time with yourself alone. If this is something you are brand new to, start by engaging in the activity for just 10-15 minutes and work your way up to 45 minutes to an hour. Learning to enjoy our own company is a great skill to cope with loneliness. This is especially helpful if you live alone and find you have ample time to yourself. You don’t have to be productive and you don’t have to excel at the activity. What’s important is that you enjoy it. An add-on to this action item is to call in a friend or acquaintance to virtually join you in this activity. Maybe you share a video call while you both paint or, alternatively, paint on your own and then connect after to share your works of art with each other.
I sincerely hope that you’ve found something from this list that sparks a bit of inspiration for you. Whether it’s an exact action item, or you’ve come up with one on your own. This list is not exhaustive and working with our emotions is not a one size fits all process. Most importantly, be patient and compassionate with yourself as you better understand and learn to cope with loneliness. Remember that loneliness, to varying degrees, is something that’s affecting all of us in these times. You are not alone in your loneliness. We are in this together.
While I am not a therapist or medical professional, I am an active, compassionate listener. If you need someone to talk to, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.