Social distancing does not mean you have to be lonely.
If you’re used to seeing coworkers daily, having happy hours on Friday evenings, meeting friends for Sunday brunches, or dining out with your partner for regular date nights, the sudden switch to social distancing and “sheltering in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic can come as a shock to your system. The newfound loneliness might even take a toll on your mental health, potentially leading to feelings of depression or anxiety.
After all, loneliness and isolation are well-documented negative factors on mental health. A 2017 study of over 20,000 participants found that those who considered themselves lonely were more likely to have mental illness, engage in unhealthy lifestyle factors like smoking, and to have chronic health problems like diabetes.
Loneliness can be perceived (such as by comparing your social life to others on social media) or it can be literal (such as among older adults in nursing homes). During the COVID-19 pandemic, as you’re adjusting to a “new normal” that involves avoiding gatherings and staying home, you might be feeling a surge of true loneliness—but that doesn’t mean emotional connection is off the table.
In fact, with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic changing so many aspects of your life, you probably need emotional connection now more than ever. “It is especially important right now to find emotional connection and validation from trusted and reliable friends who will provide space and acknowledge what you are going through,” says Lauren Gorog, PsyD, psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy at Gorog Health in Denver, CO.
Even if you’re not home alone—you have a significant other, a roommate, or kids—it’s still beneficial to seek connections outside the household. “Humans have many different needs that cannot all be fulfilled in one, single relationship,” says Dr. Gorog. You might have competing needs—there may be times where you want interaction while they want some alone time, for example. Forcing these needs can lead to conflict.
Ideas for Emotional Connection While Social Distancing
During this chapter of social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19, technology can be a much-needed liaison between you and your friends and family members.
It might feel “weird” or awkward at first, but these ideas for emotional connection with your loved ones can be great strategies as you find your new routine:
Talk on the phone
Use video chats for “dinner dates,” book clubs, or just one-on-one conversations
Play interactive games online
Share funny memes (preferably unrelated to the coronavirus)
Try online workout classes, especially live-streamed ones which may provide a sense of participation and community
In other words, you’ve got many ways to connect with others meaningfully, even if it’s not in the ways you’re used to. If you’re still struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation and it’s having a negative effect on your mental health, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.
Coping with coronavirus: managing stress, fear, and anxiety. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 2020. (Accessed on March 28, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/messages/2020/coping-with-coronavirus-managing-stress-fear-and-anxiety.shtml.)
COVID-19 resource and information guide. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020. (Accessed on March 28, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/getattachment/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2020/NAMI-Updates-on-the-Coronavirus/COVID-19-Updated-Guide-1.pdf.)
Richard A, Rohrmann S, Vandeleur CL, Schmid M, Barth J, Eichholzer M. Loneliness is adversely associated with physical and mental health and lifestyle factors: results from a Swiss national survey. PLoS One. 2017;12(7):e0181442.