During this time of social distancing, it is very easy to feel extremely isolated and lonely. It is more important than ever to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. While it may be natural to focus our attention on the elderly, or those living alone, everyone can be facing some type of loneliness during this time where there is so much uncertainty and stress.
What is loneliness, anyway? I’ve found myself asking that very same question far too often lately, so I decided to dig deeper by doing further research and trying to learn as much as I can – to help myself and others.
I’m currently reading the recently released book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, MD. This is the book we need NOW to avoid a social recession, Murthy’s prophetic message is about the importance of human connection, the hidden impact of loneliness on our health, and the social power of community.
According to Murthy, “many people think of loneliness as isolation. Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from people with whom you belong – even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones and community”.
Even before COVID-19, around 50% of Americans reported experiencing loneliness. Loneliness can be harmful to both physical and mental health. Solitude can be as harmful to your physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That’s why it’s used as a form of extreme punishment in prison systems all across the globe. Like stress, it can take a physical toll on your body leading to health complications like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death.
For some people, social distancing can lead to a worsening in mental health symptoms. Those struggling with anxiety and depression before the pandemic are likely to be dealing with more severe symptoms during this time. The suicide crisis in the United States has been going on for over a decade, and the onset of Coronavirus is stressing it even further.
Social isolation and loneliness are two different things. We may need to practice some level of the ACT of social isolation and distancing now, but that is completely separate from the FEELING of loneliness. You could be surrounded by hundreds of people and still FEEL lonely. Loneliness is a feeling only the person experiencing it can explain.
This is not a feeling that picks and chooses. Much like Coronavirus, no one is immune to loneliness. Whether you are male, female, transgender, gay, straight, married, single, old, young, loneliness is not something that discriminates.
Remember the importance of ‘Community Care in the Time of Coronavirus’. Check in not just with your single friends or your elderly relatives. Check on your strong friends as well. Even those that seem to be strong and surrounded by people may also be combating loneliness.
The important thing to remember is YOU ARE NOT ALONE. We are all going to get through this together.
The lessons in Together have immediate relevance and application. These four key strategies will help us not only to weather this crisis, but also to heal our social world far into the future.
1. Spend time each day with those you love. Devote at least 15 minutes each day to connecting with those you most care about.
2. Focus on each other. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.
3. Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.
4. Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.
And here are some additional resources if you or someone you know is feeling lost and in need of help:
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
The ASPCA can help you locate the nearest animal shelter and pets who need a home. Owning a pet may offer benefits for well-being, including easing loneliness.
VolunteerMarch.org puts volunteers together with causes they care about in their own neighborhoods. If you’re seeking social connection or a sense of purpose, but don’t know how to go about it, this searchable database can help get you started.
I hope we can all treat kindness and compassion as sacred values that are reflected in our culture and our politics. Try focusing on what really matters in life, strong relationships.