A Loneliness Epidemic: When quarantine is harder without our normal distractions from everyday loneliness
I'm pleased to offer an insightful guest blog from psychologist and colleague Patrick Lockwood. In a discussion, he offered the intriguing suggestion that the loneliness people are feeling in quarantine and COVID-related isolation is nothing new, but is exacerbated as we have exhausted the "normal" techniques we use to numb ourselves to the everyday loneliness that people constantly cope with. It was a compelling thought, and I asked him to expound on it for my readers. Patrick may be contacted through his website or on Twitter @PsychPLockwood:
We are in a long-standing loneliness epidemic in this country(1). The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to face a problem we didn’t see coming: the actual emptiness in our lives.
Research shows a relationship between loneliness and increased risk of emotional and medical problems(2,3), and even increased mortality risk (4). For a more detailed review of the consequences of loneliness, see this other blog by Dr. Ali. To be perfectly fair, the causal link between loneliness and physical/mental health outcomes is tenuous, so take that discussion with a grain of salt. Regardless, we know that loneliness is not good for us because we’re an inherently social species and built to be connected.
Loneliness is typically a twofold problem. First, loneliness is the result of perceived unimportance (5). We need to “feel” like we matter to one another. We all know exactly what it feels like to be in a room full of people and not know anyone and feel somewhat lonely and out of place. Many times in romantic relationships people feel lonely when their partner is avoiding sexual or emotional intimacy, even though the two live under the same roof. So, in many ways, the quality of the relationship, less so the physical proximity, matters for understanding loneliness. Dozens of psychological variables impact our perceived importance: shame, guilt, trauma, abuse, neglect, attachment insecurity, cultural mismatches in values in relationships, and many more.
Second, loneliness is the result of a lack of self-understanding, specifically understanding our unique needs for connection. Lack of self-awareness is a common condition across mental health struggles. Our needs for connection are multifaceted. We’re all built differently, practically speaking there are hundreds of variables that can affect the way we process being separate from other people: personality (introversion vs. extroversion), habits/hobbies, culture, context, extant mental health issues, to name a few.
Once we understand our needs and we feel important, we tend to act on them and get our needs met.
Now that I’ve given my take on loneliness, let me offer a 3-part theory about the interaction between loneliness and our ever-changing psychosocial landscape:
1. Life is stressful. Even though (overall) our world in the US is much better than it has ever been (prior to the Pandemic), people seem to be much more stressed out. For the last 10 years in the US more and more people are working, and working overtime (even when we’re away from work). We live in a very fast-paced society, often with mismatching employee-manager perception of optimal job demands or workflows, which often results in disengagement and burnout. There’s also significant political stress in the US, with never ending arguments about conservative vs. liberal policies, Donald Trump’s latest tweets, and upcoming elections.
article continues after advertisement2. We often cope poorly with stress, for example sometimes relying on instant alleviation of distress via “checking out” by spending lots of time on social media. What people call “escapism.” There are plenty of ways to engage in escapism, the most common examples are drugs, social media, overworking, streaming service overuse (e.g. “Binge-watching”), and excessive video game use. If we’re spending more time using escapist skills, how much time is left over for in-person relationships. This is not to rehash the highly contested “smart phone addiction” hypotheses. It’s simpler than that: we have great instant gratification tools, which are low cost in the short term (emotional cost is low compared to investing in a person). It’s reasonable to want an easier way to cope, but at what long term cost?
3. If we are “escaping” too much, then maybe we have devalued our in-person relationships. More time online or in the bar, less time with close friends/family/romantic partners building quality relationships. For example, if you’re a regular in the online tribalism game (i.e., politics or religion or philosophical or economic ideology wars), then this online life can become a significant part of your socializing. We don’t see it happen. Slowly and subtly over time we put more importance on our escapism habits, which automatically detracts from our real-life relationships. With this shift towards an online life for many, plus all of the stress mentioned above, and other forms of escapism…it seems like COVID-19 left us in a weird place. We were once able to distract ourselves with hobbies, the bar (superficial because of intoxication), vacations, social media, or overly packed work schedules before, but now we can't. Those distractions were great when we could balance them out with easy access to real people. Now some are feeling the pain (loneliness), wanting more out of their less than satisfying connections (due to absence of depth and perceived importance).
If we are slowly/subtly focusing too much on distractions and workplaces, and too little on optimal in person connection (the core of our psychosocial survival needs), then maybe we are running on a connection deficit, possibly worsening quarantine life for many. Fear also seems to play a role here, like we are afraid that we can’t survive being lonely. I’ve written about fear, and how unrealistic/mismanaged fear makes our society a worse place to live and easily leads to escapist coping. The bigger issue is the loneliness though.
What’s the upside?
Is social media bad? Not at all, in fact it has a number of upsides. We can also feel connected via Zoom or a phone call even if it’s not ideal, face-to-face connection. What does this all mean? I don’t know. It’s just a theory. Some elements apply to some people, but not all. Plenty of people have healthy relationships with alcohol, video games, sex, social media, and the other escapist tools.
article continues after advertisementMy hopeful take is this: we can come out the other side of this epidemic in a better psychological state. We can choose to take our loneliness and escapism issues seriously, and might even find the cure for the loneliness epidemic: real connection.
by Tiffany Schupanitz, LMHC
Have you found yourself in a relationship where one day your partner is sending you all the right signals and communication? He is flirty and interested in learning about you. He says all the right things to increase attraction. Then, out of the blue, the communication and attention stops. You find yourself wondering what you might have done or said that would cause the loss of attraction. When you are ready to give up after the last unanswered text, he suddenly resurfaces as though nothing has happened. This is a very common trend in the dating world that contributes to the feeling that you are on an emotional rollercoaster.
If this is a pattern that you have started to recognize that has begun to cause anxiety, pain, and stress, then it is never to late to set clear boundaries. A relationship should encourage feelings of stability and security. This requires consistent communication. It is important to set the expectation of what consistent communication looks like for you in a relationship. Relationships should also include mutual effort. If one partner is overextending and doing more work, then it can lead to feelings of resentment and bitterness toward the other partner. It is not either partner’s responsibility to manage the other party’s emotions. Self-care and firm boundaries around this are important.
If this relationship is causing pain and stress, then it may be time to turn inward to explore what is keeping you engaged in this behavior and if this is a relationship you want to pursue. The expectation that the other person is going to change is unrealistic, so it may be time to set boundaries and focus on what you can change to change the cycle. This may cause some fear that the relationship will end, but it may be possible that this will teach what you are truly looking for in a relationship. Therapists are available via telehealth and in person sessions to help navigate through relationship struggles.
For many Americans, life has changed drastically in just a few days. Your work may have closed, events are canceled, and many shops and businesses have stopped or reduced normal operations. But many people who live alone are also about to face another concern: loneliness.
As the calls for social distancing increase across the country, you may be worrying about the days to come. If you live in an area that already has many cases of COVID-19, you may have already spent days or weeks at home with nowhere to go.
You may, at some point, start to wonder if spending some time with a few friends is really so bad. You might also believe there’s no harm in going out, if restaurants and bars in your state are still open, since you’re young and healthy and will only face mild symptoms if you even contract the virus at all.
This new coronavirus is a serious threat. No matter how lonely or healthy you feel, avoid giving in to the temptation to hang out in a group or go out to eat. You could easily spread the virus, if you have an asymptomatic case, or contract it and spread it to others, even if you don’t seem to sicken yourself.
Right now, it’s best to stay home unless you’re running a necessary errand, like grocery shopping or going to work if you can’t telecommute. But isolation can be distressing, especially isolation of an indeterminate length, and it’s possible social distancing will remain standard practice for some time.
Isolation and loneliness may challenge you, but know your actions will help keep you, and anyone else you might encounter, in good health.
SIGNS YOU’RE EXPERIENCING COVID-19 LONELINESSIt must be acknowledged: If you live alone, you’ll most likely experience some distress during COVID-19 social distancing, self-isolation, or quarantine. Extroverts, introverts, and everyone in between are bound to have some challenges coping with prolonged, enforced isolation.
Even if you ordinarily feel fine going without human contact for several days, you typically know you have that option available. But now you can’t read at your favorite coffee shop, meet a date for a drink, play group sports, or go to your game night. This interruption to your routine can make you feel somewhat at a loss.
Some people can cope with isolation fairly easily, but others have a harder time managing loneliness. Isolation can have a negative impact on mental health, if you don’t act to address it.
Look out for these key signs:
But keeping your distance from friends and loved ones doesn’t mean you have to cut off contact entirely. In fact, the opposite is recommended: If you aren’t spending face-to-face time with loved ones, increasing your text, telephone, letter writing, and video chat interactions can help combat your loneliness.
Think of it as physical distancing rather than social distancing, and try these tips to stay connected:
Stay in touch with friends and familyEven if you can’t physically spend time together, prioritize the contact you can have: text messages, phone calls, FaceTime or Skype. Spending virtual “time” with the people you care about may not feel exactly the same, but it can still help counter the worst of your loneliness.
In particular, reach out to older relatives and loved ones who may not be able to set foot outside their house at all. Remind them of your love and affection and encourage them to follow isolation requirements for their own safety. This has the double impact of reducing isolation for you both.
Limit social media useWhile social media apps can be a good way to connect with your network of friends and family, spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram could make you feel worse. Seeing photos of people enjoying time with their family or roommates could increase feelings of loneliness, for example. Making posts that don’t get many comments or responses could also trigger feelings of anxiety or depression.
There’s no need to avoid social media entirely. Just stay aware of how it affects your mood and move on to a different activity if you start to notice a negative impact.
Get to know your neighborsYes, you need to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from other people. But don’t let that stop you from talking to your neighbor across the hall or from your back patio. As long as you’re both healthy, you can even sit and talk outside, as long as you keep your distance.
Consider fostering or adopting a petAre pet shelters in your area are still operating? Do you know someone who needs to find a home for a cat, dog, or other small creature?
If your financial circumstances and living situation allow, finding a furry friend could help you avoid loneliness during COVID-19 social distancing. Pets offer companionship and love, with no strings attached. By bringing home a pet, you’re also helping relieve the burden on shelters, who may be financially strapped or lack volunteers during this crisis.
If you aren’t sure about making a long-term commitment to pet adoption, you might also consider temporarily fostering an animal in need. Many pet owners who become ill or need to spend time in the hospital will need someone to care for their pet.
Just remember to create a plan for your pet’s care, whether you already have a pet or plan to adopt, in the event that you get sick.
If you’re in good health but can’t have a pet or don’t feel able to adopt, you might ask your local shelter if they need volunteers.
Stay physically activeYes, in most cases, you can still get outside! Exercise and sunlight can improve your mood and offer additional physical and emotional health benefits during times of stress.
When you don’t have much else to do, long walks can offer opportunities for mindfulness, appreciation of the wider world, and even meditation on the go. Jogging, biking, and skating are all great activities, too. Keep your distance, but increase your sense of connection with your community by smiling, waving, or greeting others you pass—even if you normally tend to avoid eye contact. Compassion and solidarity are more important now than ever before.
Just practice good hygiene: take care not to touch things, carry hand sanitizer, and wash your hands often.
REMAINING POSITIVE DURING A PANDEMICThe coronavirus pandemic may be one of the most challenging events you’ve experienced. Living alone, without friends or family members to offer comfort and support, may only worsen feelings of fear, anxiety, and unease.
But take heart in the fact that your isolation won’t last forever. It’s tough to be alone, but remember the reason: By keeping your distance, you’re doing your part to help reduce the spread of the virus and protect yourself and your loved ones. Keeping this goal in mind can help reduce the distress of COVID-19 social distancing.
It’s always a good idea to talk to a mental health professional if you experience intense distress, despair, or hopelessness, or if you have thoughts of suicide. Find a therapist who offers telehealth services on GoodTherapy today!
A TELEHEALTH SOLUTION FOR MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALSAs therapists and other mental health professionals navigate life right now, we know and understand how current events may be impacting your professional commitments to the patients you care for, your own family, and your personal well-being. We want to help you maintain as much normalcy as possible during the next few weeks. If you’re ready to pick up sessions right where you left off, we’re so excited to share that we’re officially offering our members (on select plans*) free telehealth. We hope this closes the gap and eases social distancing for you and your patients. Learn more and get started here.
*Included at no cost for Annual and Annual Billed Monthly membership plans. Monthly members have access at no charge for 90 days then will billed $9.99/month after the trial period ends.
© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
— Marcel Proust
The current coronavirus pandemic has made us all intensely aware of the fragility of our physical health. Consequently, we’ve quickly adopted behaviors such as sheltering in place and face masks to protect us from becoming ill.
article continues after advertisementHowever, relatively little has been said about how this crisis is exacerbating mental health problems. It’s important for us to remember that mental health influences physical health, and vice versa.
This is not just a public health crisis; it is a mental health crisis.
In reality, we’re being forced to face life (and ourselves) without the usual endless distractions of work, chores, and entertainments that normally fill our days. It can be challenging.
Therapists like myself are seeing an increase in clients who, because of physical and social distancing or being cooped up 24/7 with family members or partners, are experiencing increased depression and anxiety. People with a history of alcohol or drug abuse are unable to turn to the things that always have helped them stay sober such as going to meetings or the gym or socializing with friends. Consequently, they’re scared of relapsing and turning to old habits to cope.
Those who are obsessive-compulsive disordered around cleanliness and germs are particularly vulnerable these days. Clients are reporting distress over cleaning, vacuuming and washing things repeatedly more than ever before. It’s debilitating for them and those around them who are being affected by the increase in OCD behaviors. Clients are reporting they can’t relax, feeling like covid -19 is everywhere.
Some people actually are medically sick and it’s affecting their mental health. Those with compromised immune systems such as those living with asthma, hypertension, AIDS or HIV+ to name a few are reporting feeling like damaged goods. They already go throughout the world feeling vulnerable and this is exacerbating their vulnerability.
Fear of Having Symptoms
Others aren’t ill but the situation is causing them to feel unwell and increased anxiety. During the AIDs crisis, I remember people imagining that they were experiencing some AIDs-related symptoms and were alarmed, convincing themselves that they had contracted the disease. Now with this Covid-19 crisis, someone may get a sore throat or a cough or feel short of breath and become terrified that they’re coming down with the disease. Doctors are seeing more patients today experiencing such symptoms, which very often are just symptoms of anxiety. Of course, the more anxiety one experiences, the more symptoms like shortness of breath one is likely to have. For those suffering with hypochondriasis it’s nearly the perfect storm.
And here’s another interesting potential reason for anxiety: Suddenly we’re becoming more aware of how many years we’ve lived. Where just a few weeks ago people might have said “Sixty is the new forty,” I’ve recently heard this expressed as “Forty is the new sixty,” even though the data shows that Covid-19 deaths are happening all over the age spectrum. People are talking in therapy rooms about feeling their older ages in ways they haven’t before.
Childhood memories come to us mostly unconsciously. This where therapy is helpful for people to see and become conscious of how they are recycling their childhood in the present. Being cooped up, either alone or with others, can sometimes bring out the worst in us, such as unresolved childhood issues. It may remind us of being grounded, of being stuck in the house with a highly dysfunctional or sick parent and feeling like we had nothing to look forward to.
I have had clients tell me they went and bought too many groceries even though they had enough in their home—and even had a meal service bringing them food—because they feared food scarcity that was real in their childhood. Another client told me he is worried about his spouse catching it and dying, or worse, him bringing the virus into the home and exposing his spouse and killing her. Going back into his childhood, he always felt responsible for his mother’s death when he was 12. Yet another client is worried about spending and money given what is happening in this economy but is fighting with his partner over spending money on things necessary for the home. He is reliving the poverty in which he grew up where his family had money and after a business loss the family had nothing.
I am a relationships and sexual health therapist, and some of my clientele fall into the LGBTQ category, a group with real reason for concern. Studies show that these folks are more likely than the general population to have compromised immune systems (higher rates of asthma, and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, more of them smoke cigarettes, further compromising their immune system). Only 17 percent of them have health insurance. For them, times like these are particularly dangerous and stressful, and I fear that too many will not seek the help they need. These statistics are according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Looking Through New Eyes
However, this may end up actually being good for us all. If we can have the presence of mind and courage to step back and see this crisis with new eyes, as Proust said in the opening quote, we may begin to see an opportunity to become our better selves. This requires that we begin to move out of fear toward growth, leaving behind a tendency to spread fear and anger to others, and move toward living in the present, focusing on the future, having empathy for ourselves and others, and better adapting to change.
Therapy can help. Many therapists, including me, have taken this opportunity to get involved in Telehealth; that is, working with clients remotely over the Internet. It is a great way to practice physical/social distancing while providing one-on-one counseling.
When someone is experiencing dire physical symptoms, it is wise for them to call their doctor and make an appointment. If they are in the throes of depression or anxiety, however, it’s an excellent time to reach out to a professional therapist and begin to unravel the knots that are at the roots of our mental and emotional discomfort.
Be safe, smart, and kind to others during this time … and remember, we all need one another.
By Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT
In light of recent developments with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, many parents are now working at home while at the same time schooling their children at home. There is little opportunity to leave the house and engage in activities that were once a part of the normal routine for separating from the daily stress of work or school life. Now more than ever, seeking to achieve separation from work for adults as well as school for kids requires purposeful action.
Dealing with job or school demands can drain an individual’s resources. If these resources are not replenished during recovery time, then the person is at risk for burnout. Burnout is a condition that affects employees when they are under stress over long periods. Burnout is the result of depleted resources due to job demand and little or no action in replenishing these resources. Two major features of burnout include emotional exhaustion and feeling ineffective in one’s ability to perform their job duties (Greenberg, 2002).
In order to prevent parents from burning out from the increased demands of their new responsibilities of schooling their children at home and possibly maintaining their own work, one can apply burnout prevention research to their current situation. In addition, children can adopt these strategies in their daily routine to keep mentally and physically healthy during this time. The most replenishing activities for a person in their recovery time, according to research, includes taking frequent breaks, psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery and control (Brough et al., 2014).
4 TIPS FOR WORK-LIFE BALANCE AMID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Tip 1: Take frequent breaks throughout the day and on weekends.
Why: Dealing with job demands can drain an individual’s resources, which are replenished during recovery time. Research indicates that breaks throughout the work day and on weekends are crucial to surviving stress (Landsbergis et al., 2012).
How to do this during mandatory stay at home orders:
Cardiovascular activities for short spurts throughout the day. Take a walk, ride a bike, or go for a run. If you can’t go outside, try finding a workout video that incorporates exercise you can do in your home.
Use your weekends to recover from work and school stress. If you can go outside with the family, spend time riding bikes, going for walks, or doing an outdoor activity like playing catch. If you cannot go outside, play card games, board games, charades, or activities that provide your brain a way to detach from work or school stress (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989).
Do homework or work on weekends. If possible, don’t check work emails during the weekend. If your situation does not allow for this, try to designate one hour each day of the weekend to not engage in work or school activities.
Tip 2: Psychologically detach from work and school.
Why: Sonnentag and Fritz (2007) found that people who were able to detach from their jobs (i.e. turn on the off button) after working had higher well-being. These people were also more satisfied with their jobs and experienced less emotional exhaustion and burnout. While we currently can’t physically leave our office place or home school, there are scheduling segmentation tactics that we can implement during the work day to prevent work-related issues from intruding into recovery time.
How to do this during mandatory stay at home orders:
Find a time during the day where you “leave work” or “leave school.” Perhaps you make an announcement to your kids, “School is over for the day!” For yourself, maybe you have a designated time during the day or evening where you stop working and don’t come back to your work until the next day.
Schedule times of the day where you allow yourself alone time. If your situation prevents you from having alone time due to the age of your children, perhaps turn on a screen for your children for an hour so that you can temporarily detach from your demands.
Check work emails before bed, and if possible, don’t keep your phone on at night. This allows for sleep cycles (an important recovery time) to be uninterrupted by outside demands.
Tip 3: Meditate.
Why: Research on worrying—a concept linked with hindering detachment—has shown that the amount of time people spend worrying can be reduced by intervention strategies (Sliter et al., 2014). One way to reduce worry is to implement meditation and breathing strategies when feeling overwhelmed.
Incorporate breathing exercises and meditation strategies throughout the day. There are mindfulness apps, videos on YouTube, and social media personalities that provide free breathing and meditation exercises to utilize during the day.
Have your children participate in breathing exercises, meditation strategies, and yoga practice. Several free YouTube videos have yoga exercises designed for children.
Use an excess of substances such as alcohol or cannabis. Despite the immediate effects substances can have in easing anxiety, the persistent use of this in excess over time may actually cause a person to feel more anxious and more depressed. In addition, it can prevent a person from learning to manage their stress and anxiety through healthier coping strategies like exercise and meditation (Amen & Amen, 2018).
Tip 4: Master something.
Why: Another important element of detachment from work is mastery. At work, we are often expected to be in control of our reactions, emotions, and actions. Successful recovery involves doing an activity that keeps us from thinking about the demands of work, giving us the opportunity to “let loose” and let go of that element of control. Some good activities for this include creative endeavors, sporting activities, and learning options (Hahn et al., 2011).
Try to master an activity unrelated to work or school. Perhaps it is a musical instrument, a sport, art, a blog, or a dance routine. Research shows that these types of activities allow the brain to detach from outside demands and use creative regions in the brain that are not utilized during school or work activities.
Encourage your family members to engage in their own mastery activities.
Use social media as a mastery activity. Mastery involves control over one’s activities, and often, social media is a place that one cannot control their environment or what comes across on their daily news feed. Try to avoid using social media as your only outlet from work or school demands. In fact, many studies have indicated that people who spend more time on social media have increased rates of depression (Chowdhry, 2016).
While these strategies seem simple, how often do we implement them? Difficulty managing stress has been linked to burnout, physical health problems, and mental health problems. By implementing small changes throughout your day, you can help prevent poor health outcomes for you and your family members.
We may not be able to control what happens in our day-to-day experiences at home, but we can implement daily, practical interventions that lead to overall well-being during this challenging time. If you are having a hard time coping with the current demands of your work or family life, please consider talking to a therapist.
© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Newport Beach, California
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.