Mental Health · Women and Wellness

COVID-19: The Risks of Loneliness and Isolation

We’ve been asked to make many significant sacrifices to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus. One of the greatest has been giving up our interactions and ability to socialize with each other in person on a daily or at least regular basis. I’m deeply concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of this isolation on each of us, especially on those who struggle with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and self-worth.  We truly are social creatures, and without face-to-face contact and human touch, we suffer. This effect is cumulative over time.

I’ve seen many of us approach “social distancing” bravely with a wonderful “can do” attitude. I’ve also heard from many who feel profound relief at the dramatic drop in the requirements and demands of interacting with others. For those with social anxiety, this relief is a very real and welcomed thing. But over time, relief becomes isolation and loneliness, and these affect our very sense of self.

Loneliness is one of the hardest emotions for us to feel, as it is so unnatural. Our psyche can’t help but interpret social isolation as a punishment. Even when we know that maintaining social distance serves the greater good and public health, deep down in our emotional center, we feel rejected. Without the reassurance of being in another’s company, we start to feel insecure about our connections to others. Our unconscious mind searches for a way to make sense of our abrupt solitary confinement and we suddenly feel alone, unlikable, and, in our worst moments, we question our worthiness. As a species, we cannot survive alone. We are programmed to experience loneliness and isolation as threats to our very existence.

We have to work diligently against this pre-programming to override these self-critical messages. If we give credence to our fears of rejection or worthlessness, we will stop reaching out to others. And yet doing so is essential to our well-being, especially now. We need regular, palpable reminders that others care for and value us. This is even more critical when we are depressed or anxious. Being alone can remind us of times we’ve been isolated because we were in the midst of a deep depression, and this association can lead us into the downward spiral of negative thoughts and feelings of self-blame and depression.

So, how do we cope with all this? An effective strategy will involve awareness, understanding, and kindness toward both self and others. Cultivate awareness of your thoughts and feelings. Tune in to what your mind is telling you and how you are feeling, seeking to do so withcuriosity rather than judgment. Understand that feeling lonely is a completely natural response to the current situation and that you are not to blame for feeling so alone. It is healthy to crave the company of others and it helps to recognize that our self-worth will take a powerful hit as a result of not being able to physically be with others.

Employ kindness to yourself by giving yourself to permission to feel and think as you do while gently encouraging yourself to reach out to others and demonstrate kindness to them. Remind yourself that others are feeling just as you are at this rare moment in history. Each of us longs to have someone pick up the phone and call us just to talk, especially if it’s “been too long.” Understand that being the one to reach out to others makes us feel anxious and vulnerable. That’s why everyone says, “Let’s keep in touch” or, “Call me sometime” and leaves it up to the other person. Take a deep breath, summon your courage and call someone who’s been on your mind. Your anxiety will melt in hearing the sound of their voice and how pleased they are that you called. And you will know in your bones the truth that they’ve been struggling with loneliness too.