“There is a loneliness epidemic,” global headlines often claim. This has become all the more true during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns, quarantines, and health risks have increasingly forced people to spend time apart. How can you turn involuntary isolation into a valuable experience?
Recent studies and surveys have confirmed what everyone suspected all along: the COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on people’s mental health all around the globe.
Numerous lockdowns, travel restrictions, and simply the acute awareness of the risks to health posed by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have rendered people more anxious, depressed, and isolated than ever.
According to a Statista survey from February 2021, a significant number of respondents in many countries around the world indicated that they felt lonely at least some of the time.
In a 2013 TEDx talk, Prof. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who specialized in the impact of loneliness on human individuals and societies, explained just why loneliness can be such a dangerous state of mind.
“It’s dangerous, as a member of a social species, to feel isolated, and our brain snaps into self-preservation mode,” he said. “That brings with it some unwanted and unknown effects on our thoughts and our actions toward others.”
How loneliness affects the body
Loneliness affects not just how we think of ourselves and others. It also demonstrably influences our risk of physical illness. A study from 2018 found that loneliness was linked to a higher risk of dementia, while a 2020 study tied feelings of loneliness to a higher risk of diabetes.
Another study from 2020 made a fascinating find — when we feel lonely, the same brain region that “lights up” when we experience hunger becomes activated. In other words, we feel “hunger” for human contact and, where possible, will take steps to address this need.
If people are unable to remedy their feelings of loneliness, it may have dire consequences. In 2017, two meta-analyses looking at over 100 studies claimed there was “robust evidence” that loneliness was an important risk factor for early mortality, even more so than chronic conditions such as obesity.
While the mechanisms through which this subjective experience may influence our physical health remain unclear, some older research provides hints and possible explanations.
For example, a study from 2015 suggests that chronic loneliness triggers the expression of a gene called CtrA, which, in turn, alters the immune response in a way that renders the body more susceptible to illness.
Certainly, people can also be alone by choice, as they may prefer their own company to that of others, and many life coaches and social media influencers push the value of dedicated “me time” for mental and physical health.
But what about involuntary “me time”? What if we end up alone for an indeterminate period due to factors outside our control, such as the COVID-19 pandemic? How can we minimize the ill effects of ensuing loneliness?
To find out, we spoke to Sara Makin, M.S.Ed., NCC, LPC, founder and CEO of online counseling practice Makin Wellness, and Lee Chambers, M.Sc. M.B.Ps.S., an environmental psychologist and well-being consultant. They offered their top tips on how to turn undesired alone time into a positive experience.
“We live in a society where the sheer speed of living and levels of constant connectivity has led to an abundance of advice looking at generating solitude […] and disconnection,” Chambers noted, speaking to Medical News Today.
Much recent research has looked at and questioned our relationship with modern-day tools, particularly social media, suggesting that it can be a double-edged sword. While it aims to connect, it can also be an isolating experience.
That is why there is so much online advice around disconnecting from our fast-paced modern lifestyle. However, Chambers pointed out that advice on “unplugging” for well-being and spending quality time alone can sometimes leave out the essential consideration that people do benefit from social connection.
“There is real value to finding a space to develop this slower, lesser stimulating environment and lifestyle, yet it is vitally important that we don’t forget to consider social well-being aspects as part of the broader picture, especially when restrictions are in place [as in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic],” he told us.
In order to be able to cultivate a positive “alone time” experience, he went on to explain, it is important to understand what loneliness is, as well as what factors within our control can affect our mood:
“Social isolation and loneliness are sometimes mistaken as the same thing. They are related, and when social isolation is non-negotiable, coping with the impact is paramount. Firstly, while challenging, focusing on the fundamentals of health has a significant impact on overall mood. Sleeping well, moving physically and exercising, and maintaining a nutritious diet all help to create positive foundations, as does participating in activities that are enjoyable and not restricted.”
When it comes to ensuring human contact in situations where “alone time” does not happen by choice, two things are key, according to Chambers: intentionality in communication and open dialogue.
“Communicating with others by methods available in an intentional way can generate an element of positivity resonance, which is protective. It is also beneficial to talk about your feelings with somebody trusted, consider starting something new for novelty and social opportunity, and even consider learning something, boosting your intellectual well-being in the process. If the learning can be collaborative, even more benefits can be garnered.”
– Lee Chambers
Focus on what you can control
Chambers noted that focusing on lifestyle factors that are within our control — such as following a nutritious diet, having a good night’s sleep, and exercising — can help improve well-being in general.
Sara Makin also suggested acting on things that are within our control in order to make the most out of times when we find ourselves alone:
“Isolation and feelings of loneliness oftentimes lead to depression. When we are unintentionally isolated and feeling down, it can feel like the things around us are out of control. We may ruminate on our situation, which can make our circumstances worse.”
Research has shown that people who feel they have control over their circumstances and environment also tend to have a greater sense of well-being, which contributes to how resilient they are when facing adversity.
That is why it is important, in situations that may otherwise feel outside of our control — such as a lockdown scenario — to act on the things that we do have power over.
Even the basic act of moving furniture around our home or redecorating our bedroom could help by giving us a sense of control over our immediate environment:
“For those who are lonely, taking control of environments can feel empowering, especially tidying a space to be less cognitively taxing and more open.”
– Lee Chambers
When we are isolated and feeling lonely, said Makin, there are a few things we can try in order to turn that into a more positive experience.
One idea that might help, she said, might be having a set schedule or routine for each day, which would offer a sense of stability and overall control. Like Chambers, she also suggested communicating intentionally with people we love and trust.
“Stay connected with those you love via video chat, phone calls, or texting,” she advised. “We should be taking advantage of all the technological ways we can stay connected with our loved ones.”
At the same time, however, Makin suggested limiting time spent on social media, which may alienate us further rather than improve our sense of social connection:
“Limit the time spent on social media. Yes, we may have unlimited time to scroll and catch up on what others are up to. However, too much of this can actually make our feelings of loneliness and isolation worse. This is because seeing others being connected may make us feel worse about our current situation. The recommended [amount] of social media use is typically 30–60 minutes a day.”
Chambers agreed. “Technology is often touted as the solution to loneliness, yet in itself, it can become an amplifier of loneliness depending on its use,” he told MNT.
Social media can be a good tool for connection, “but only if used sparingly and intentionally,” he cautioned once again. That is because “[m]indful use, with breaks taken, helps to ensure you are not overstimulated, allowing your mind to regenerate,” he explained.
Engage in pleasurable activities
A good way of “tricking” ourselves out of loneliness, according to Makin, is by engaging in activities that we enjoy, whether this means making use of existing hobbies or finding new interests that can boost our levels of joy.
Research has linked several enjoyable pastimes with benefits for both physical and mental health. Gardening, listening to music, and reading are all tied to greater levels of overall well-being.
Both Makin and Chambers also suggested spending time in nature, which, as various studies have shown, brings a significant number of mental health benefits.
One study from January 2021 indicated that spending time in nature can help reduce stress, while research from 2019 went as far as to suggest that “simply seeing green spaces” — for example, by admiring a nearby park or garden from your own window — correlates with having fewer or less intense cravings for things like unhealthy snacks, alcohol, or tobacco.
Another 2019 study claimed that spending just 2 hours per week outdoors was linked to higher self-reported well-being.
“Get some fresh air and connect with nature. Try to get outside throughout the day if you can. That may mean taking a walk in your backyard or sitting outside on your porch. Fresh air does us good, and sunshine gives us vitamin D, which alleviates feelings of depression,” Makin said.
Chambers also emphasized the benefits of spending time in a peaceful outdoor space:
“Close contact with nature and a place to connect with it, however small, can have significant benefits, especially when paired with movement such as walking. The awe generated and the feeling of being part of something much larger and connected can be a real tonic away from the challenges of modern life.”
‘Rewrite’ your story
Both Chambers and Makin suggested that making an effort to shift the way we think about being alone could go a long way toward dissipating the feeling of loneliness.
“Teach yourself how to shift your perspective on loneliness and isolation from negative to positive,” Makin advised: “For example, when we are not home, we are so active living our very busy lives that we do not have a moment to check in with ourselves and see how we are feeling. This is a great opportunity to spend some time with ourselves and practice enjoying the present moment.”
This is much easier said than done, especially when “alone time” does not occur by choice. However, existing research has shown that when we “rewrite” the unwanted experience of loneliness and try to see it from a different perspective, it lessens its negative impact on our psyches.
Accepting that we find ourselves alone and reflecting on ways to make the most of that experience can go some way toward shifting loneliness into serenity.
“It is always challenging when we don’t have a defined point in time [for when the undesired context will end], and that lack of clarity and anchor can make it feel like it’s unknowable, generating a feeling of helplessness,” Chambers noted.
“However, despite not having a rigid timescale, finding a place of acceptance that the period will be flexible and out of our direct control helps to build a commitment to ensuring positive steps on the journey and a feeling that it will pass, just like the weather — that is also variable and out of our control. It also helps us to see the things we can control, [to] take ownership of and feel empowered by using these to navigate change.”
– Lee Chambers
To help with this shift towards a more serene mindset, Chamber advised looking for the ruminating thoughts and other unhelpful mental patterns and acknowledging them as obstacles standing in the way of our well-being.
“We all have a different tolerance to uncertainty, but we should look to identify worrying that is unproductive and move to a mindful place, sensing ourselves both physically and mentally in the moment,” said Chambers.
Do not hesitate to ask for help
Sometimes, however, no matter how hard we try to counteract it, loneliness can become overwhelming. If that happens, it is important to acknowledge it and seek support through the means available to us.
Even in the scenario of a lockdown or self-isolation, there are still ways to access professional support, such as that offered by counselors and psychotherapists.
There are many mental health support and therapy options online, including some that come free of cost. Makin strongly advised:
“Connect with a mental health professional if you need to. There are many options for telehealth [and] telemental services that don’t require you to leave the comfort and safety of your own home.”
Finally, the most important step in coping with loneliness is, as Chambers emphasized to MNT, “be[ing] kind and compassionate to [your]self, and finding acceptance.” These “all play a role in being able to turn loneliness into a happier experience, and [provide] pathways to move towards a more positive and socially connected future.”
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