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Sharp Health News

Managing loneliness during COVID-19

Sept. 8, 2020

Man sitting on a couch video conferencing on laptop with a woman

Before the pandemic, it may have been challenging to find time for yourself in between work engagements, birthday parties, appointments and family obligations. Now, we’re finding ourselves with more “me time” than ever before — and many of us feel downright lonely.

Pre-COVID-19, half of respondents in a Cigna study reported feeling sometimes or always alone. With the added isolation of the pandemic, mental health experts are concerned these numbers are growing.

“Feeling lonely correlates with mental health distress, including anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Dara Schwartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “In addition to mental health concerns, loneliness has been linked to heart problems, diabetes, stroke, memory complaints, drug abuse risk and elevated blood pressure.”

Dr. Schwartz adds that there is also a connection between loneliness and sleep problems, a negative relationship with food, and increased reliance on ineffective coping skills, such as drinking and gambling.

Social vs. physical distancing
Initially, the term “social distancing” was recommended to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This label was quickly updated to “physical distancing” because while physical space helps slow the spread of the virus, there remains a clear need for people to stay connected to their community.

“We are social creatures — designed to eye gaze, hand hold, laugh — and our bodies and brains are rewarded when we do this,” says Dr. Schwartz. “When we don’t or feel we can’t, we do not feel like ourselves.”

Fostering relationships with others
While the pandemic makes it more difficult to foster relationships in the way we are used to, it is not insurmountable to have relationships.

“Talk on the phone, maintain physical distancing if you are in person, or use one of the tech platforms we are so lucky to have in 2020,” says Dr. Schwartz. “We are fortunate to be navigating this pandemic in San Diego, a place where we can be outside most of the year.”

Fostering the relationship with ourselves
There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. This means you can feel part of something and connected to something without necessarily having physical contact with others. It is important to speak to yourself in an empowered and positive way during this pandemic.

“Talk to yourself about your resilience, about what you have overcome before and what you are designed to overcome again,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Remind yourself that we have been through tough times as a world and made it out OK, and this time we are more connected and more scientifically advanced than others.”

Dr. Schwartz recommends limiting time on social media due to its ability to cause frustration, anxiety and comparison with others.

Checking in with yourself
Feelings of anxiety, fear and frustration are all normal and expected emotions during a period of isolation. Our brains are wired to feel these emotions, so you have to allow for them in your life. The Ride the Wave exercise reminds you to let emotions come and go, like the waves in the ocean.

During this time, people who are isolated and feel lonely are at increased risk of suicide.

“If you are having despairing thoughts or thoughts of wanting to harm yourself, it is important to talk to someone in your life or seek professional care,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Especially in these times, you are not alone and help is available.”

For additional assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

Learn more about managing loneliness and isolation during challenging times through this free online workshop.

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