A certain amount of loneliness in our lives is a natural human experience. We all experience it, and it doesn’t feel good. However, it is generally only an indication of underlying mental health concerns when we find that these feelings become excessive, or all-consuming, and interfere with daily living.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has likely caused more people who live alone to experience feelings of isolation, loneliness is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been an issue for a long time. For example, an AARP study released in 2010, found that loneliness affects more than 1 in 3 adults over the age of 45. But just because loneliness is a common experience, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
What is the definition of loneliness?
Loneliness is a sense of feeling bad or unhappy because we are isolated from others. When these feelings become overwhelming, they can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression.
We may stop doing things we need to do to take care of ourselves, such as eating properly, taking a shower, and/or brushing our teeth. We may begin to sleep less, and/or experience a loss of appetite.
In severe cases of chronic loneliness, our physical health may become compromised as a result of prolonged emotional distress.
Loneliness and Mental Health
It’s important to note that everyone gets lonely from time to time. It’s part of the human experience. Not speaking to a friend for a day, or skipping brushing your teeth is not necessarily a cause for concern. But, when failure to take care of ourselves becomes routine, or when our thoughts are consumed with “what ifs,” or negative thoughts begin to take over, it is time to seek mental health treatment. If you begin to notice an uptick in anxiety, and/or begin having suicidal thoughts, it is crucial to seek mental health treatment immediately.
Loneliness and Physical Health
Loneliness not only affects mental health; it can also affect physical health. An increase in emotional distress will activate our sympathetic nervous system (stress response). Short term stress responses are perfectly normal.
Prolonged stress responses or frequent activation of the sympathetic nervous system can result in inflammation, increased heart rate, and exacerbation of chronic pain. If your health begins to deteriorate, it is not a yellow warning sign that you may need help. It is a bright red warning sign that you need to seek treatment.
How has COVID-19 impacted loneliness?
Those who were most vulnerable to isolation prior to COVID-19, are most likely to feel the impact of increased loneliness as the result of the pandemic. For example, those who reside in care facilities or living centers, or those who are incarcerated are particularly likely to experience an increase in loneliness as the result of COVID 19. In other words, those who do not have access to social interaction are at risk for increased loneliness.
In addition, those without internet access are also vulnerable to increased experiences of loneliness. This means older adults and low-income individuals are at increased risk. Finally, those in poor health can be considered high risk for loneliness, as there is a strong body-mind connection linking physical health to mental health.
How to Cope with Loneliness When Living Alone During COVID-19
There isn’t necessarily a “cure” for loneliness, but there are plenty of ways to decrease the experience of loneliness, even if you’re living alone during COVID-19. From making sure you’re reaching out to others, to focusing on activities we enjoy, there are many ways to cope with loneliness when you live alone.
Set Aside Time to Check-in With Others
While video calls have exploded in popularity since the pandemic struck, they are not the only way to stay connected to others when you live alone. If you enjoy video calls, they are a great way to keep in touch, but if you don’t enjoy them, or don’t have access to video calls, don’t panic. Regular phone calls, or meeting up with a friend or family member at a park, or for lunch are great ways to stay connected to others.
Do Things You Enjoy
Engaging in activities that we enjoy can help prevent feelings of loneliness, by giving meaning to our lives. By engaging in activities with others, or by ourselves, help us engage in life. The activity you choose is up to you. As long as it has you engaged and enjoying yourself, it’s a healthy way to cope with feelings of loneliness.
Learn Something New
Joining online communities is a great way to learn something new. Perhaps more than ever, more opportunities to learn something new online have emerged. From joining a new group on social media to taking online art classes, exercise classes, or participating in virtual museum tours, etc., the opportunity to learn something new, while social distancing is a good strategy to cope with loneliness.
Volunteer in the Community
Volunteering is a great way to combat loneliness, but you don’t have to put yourself at risk to volunteer. Online opportunities to volunteer from your home are in abundance. Likewise, socially distanced opportunities to give back are almost certainly available in your community.
Practice Self-Care Activities
Self-care activities can help calm stress responses that loneliness can generate. Taking care of yourself through activities such as taking a long bath, practicing meditation, spending time with your pets, or using a bit of aromatherapy will help to calm your sympathetic nervous system, thus reducing feelings of loneliness.
Engage with the World Around You
Self-activities that get you to pay attention to your surroundings can be a great way to cope with loneliness. For example, in taking a walk around your neighborhood, look for the different colors of leaves, or flowers. Pay attention to the smells. Make it a point to enjoy your community by engaging with it.
Stick to a Schedule
The COVID-19 pandemic has felt like groundhog day for a lot of us. One way to combat feeling like every day is blurring into the next day is to stick to a schedule. Engage in good sleep hygiene, and try to stick to a healthy routine where you take care of yourself by getting exercise, eating well, and completing to-do lists.
Practice Self Compassion
We are all guilty of being too hard on ourselves from time to time. We are frequently our own worst critics. However, we are living through an unprecedented time, and we need to be kind to ourselves. To avoid being too hard on yourself, try treating yourself the way you would treat a dear friend who was having a hard time. How would you respond to a friend who said they were struggling with loneliness? Grant yourself the same compassion you would grant to someone you love.
When to Seek Treatment for Loneliness
Loneliness is a normal human experience and it doesn’t feel good. If you feel lonely, tell someone. Avoid telling yourself things like “it’s not really that bad.” Instead, try sharing your feelings with those close to you so that they can help.
However, if you begin to notice that feelings of loneliness are affecting you more than you’d like, or that they are having a negative impact on various aspects of your life, seek out mental health treatment. Don’t wait until these feelings of loneliness are all-consuming.
How to find Mental Health Treatment
If you’re unsure of where to find mental health treatment, there are resources available to help. If you have insurance, contact your insurance company to inquire into treatment, and professionals in your local region.
If you are uninsured or underinsured, you may find mental health professionals who work on a sliding fee scale at Psychology Today. Their searchable database of mental health care professionals allows you to find a professional by typing in your city or zip code.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides extensive resources such as a video resource library, a directory of support groups, and a helpline.
Mental Health Treatment During COVID-19
Mental health treatment is very much available and accessible during COVID-19. Irrespective of whether you have internet access, mental health care professionals are here to help. If you’re battling loneliness or other mental health problems, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are here for you by telemedicine appointment or phone appointment.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You may also reach out to the Samaritans: Call or text (877) 870-HOPE (4673).
Dr. Amy Kearney
Amy Kearney earned her Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctoral degrees in Psychology from Azusa Pacific University in the Los Angeles area. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and has worked for one of the nation’s largest HMOs since 2002. She currently specializes in pain management and gets great joy from helping individuals maximize their quality of life and functioning while living with chronic conditions.
The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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