Rachel Wright, M.A., L.F.F.T., is a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and sex and relationship expert. She’s a co-host of the relationship podcast The Wright Reasons and is running free virtual support groups for mental health help during the coronavirus outbreak.
Humans have always been pack mammals. Go back in time, and you’ll see we like being part of groups and communities.
But then a thing called the internet came along, and it really halted a lot of that in-person connection. That’s why, before the coronavirus crisis even happened, we were already in a “loneliness epidemic.” Basically, before we were being forced to self-isolate, we were already feeling lonely and isolated.
It’s not that feeling lonely on its own is necessarily a bad thing—just like feeling jealousy or stress on its own is not necessarily a bad thing. They’re natural human emotions that you can’t entirely avoid; plus, they can trigger beneficial responses (like realizing your relationship is unhealthy or spurring you into action to get a big project done). But when you experience it chronically, which is what’s starting to happen with this loneliness feeling, that’s when it can start to have repercussions. When you feel lonely, it affects the activation of serotonin and dopamine—two feel-good neurotransmitters—in your brain. Their activation slows down, which can make you feel low, possibly depressed or anxious. And so it’s really challenging when you’re by yourself, and you’re also navigating anxiety, stress, or depression separately in addition to being alone.
How to Manage Loneliness During Social Isolation
If you’re living alone or feeling extremely lonely from lack of social interaction, these strategies could drastically help. Even if you’re surrounded by people but this whole situation has you ~in your feelings~, you can take advantage of some of these strategies as well.
1. Decide how often you want to connect through video.
It’s okay if one day is an all-day affair and you’re just going to be on your phone for most of the waking hours. And it’s okay if there’s a day where you want to put your phone down and not look at it at all and just be with yourself. Figure out what the right balance is for you. On average, I would say one to three face-to-face interactions a day is a healthy number. You don’t necessarily need to be interacting with the other person—for example, just watching an Instagram live could count—as long as you feel really connected and fulfilled by it.
If you journaled before, great. If you didn’t, now’s the time to start.
It is going to be very interesting to retroactively look back on how you felt throughout this coronavirus pandemic. Take the time to just sit with yourself and ask:
- How am I feeling?
- What am I thinking?
- What am I doing?
If you’re journaling and you’re starting to feel that discomfort of sitting with your own feelings, know that discomfort was probably there before and you’re just now accessing it. Stick with it and process through that—even if you feel your hand getting tired or like you can’t write as fast as your brain is going. You can also use a voice memo on your phone, especially if you’re more of a talker than a writer. There’s no rule that says the journaling has to be a pen and paper in a book with a lock; it can be anything you want.
Another great journaling prompt is to focus on gratitude. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in what we don’t have anymore and what we’re missing—and it’s ok to write that down. But it can also be really helpful to acknowledge the things you’re really grateful for: Do you have food at home? Do you have toilet paper at home? Are you feeling healthy? Is your family healthy? All these things that, honestly most of us probably take for granted.
I like to sit down in the morning and do a brain dump—I write down anything that’s kind of swirling in my head that I just need to get out. Then I wrote down my gratitude and my intention for the day. And you don’t need to journal for a long time—for it to be beneficial you only need to journal for like one minute.
3. Keep a schedule—including time for self-care.
It can help to write out a schedule in the morning because it encourages you to notice the things that you look forward to that bring you joy—including making time to relax, just like you did when you were leaving the house more.
Just because we’re in a new, unprecedented time doesn’t mean that the things that felt relaxing before aren’t going to work now. If you liked to take a bath with a candle, take a bath with a candle. Think about what you did to relax before this pandemic, start there, and then if that’s not working, you can brainstorm some changes.
And for people who are worried about money or looking for a job, you might be thinking ‘what if I don’t have time to relax? I don’t have time to sink into my feelings.’ Still, I’d say if you don’t take the time to relax and focus on yourself, you’re not going to be in a great place to be creative, to figure out finances, or find solutions. You need to take the time for yourself, no matter what socioeconomic or pandemic position you’re in.
4. Get rid of “shoulds” and expectations.
Start from scratch because your expectations for yourself are now different. Collectively, we need to lower the bar for ourselves in a compassionate way. Think: ‘Yeah, I showered today, and that is a win.’ Sometimes our anxiety, our loneliness, or whatever emotion it might be, spikes and it’s hard to change out of sweats; it’s hard to exercise. So when we do these things, we should celebrate and honor the fact that we did it and not in a self-deprecating way. Like, truly, ‘we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and I took a shower. I’m amazing.’ We need to do that for ourselves and for our friends and family as well.
What to Do When You’re Feeling Especially Anxious, Lonely, or Depressed
First of all, just know that you’re not alone; I don’t know anyone who has not felt some level of anxiety and or depression thus far through this. It’s a normal human emotional response to feel that way right now and period.
When you find yourself spiraling into one of these emotions (and it’s not a chronic issue that you have), imagine that you’re talking to a four-year-old version of yourself. How would you talk to that four-year-old if they said to you, “I’m scared that I’m not going to get to see my friends for two more months.” How would you respond to her? Ideally, you’d meet this little kid with compassion. But when we talk to ourselves, we’re normally like, ‘Ok, you have to push through this. You have shit to get done, you need to do this work.’ And the more that we try to shove it down, the more we try to escape those feelings, they’re just going to come back with even more force and angrier. Sometimes feelings are like that; we just need to acknowledge them with compassion and let ourselves feel them.
It can be really helpful to lean into anxiety and use coping tools, even if you’ve never experienced anxiety before. Things like learning about breathwork and practicing grounding breath, limiting your news intake to a certain amount per day (don’t just have CNN on in the background all day; we need to stay informed, but we also can’t take that in all day, every day), and acknowledging the feelings you’re having to someone that you trust and love. So if you’re feeling depressed, if you’re feeling anxious, call a friend, text a friend, and let them know. Say, ‘hey, my anxiety is spiking. I don’t need you to do anything about it. I just, I need to tell somebody.’
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Internet-Based Socializing?
Everyone will hit a point where they need a break. For me, it was like day two of social distancing. Everyone was reaching out, and, on one hand, it was so wonderful: I would set my phone down for five minutes, and I’d come back to like four missed FaceTime calls and like 82 texts and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.”
But then it started creating anxiety: I felt like I had to respond to all of the things coming at me. So there’s a happy medium to find—whether you’re alone or with people. You can still have alone time and find time to socialize just like you would if this wasn’t going on. It’s really easy to think, “Well, I can’t meet up with people in person so I have to be constantly on Zoom or on Instagram with people.” Personally, my screentime shot up from an average of like four hours a day to, yesterday, I was on my phone for nine and a half hours!
That’s not healthy for anybody, even when you’re doing it to connect with other people. It’s really about finding what that “new normal” is for you. I don’t like the term “normal” because we get to times like this and we’re like, ‘I just want to go back to normal,’ and that way of thinking is just going to keep you feeling more frustrated and more stuck.
How to Deal with the Indefinite-ness of It All
Number one is acknowledging it. Say it out loud. If you’re home by yourself, even if you say it to your walls, say it out loud: “I don’t know when this is going to end, and that is scary. I don’t know when this is going to end, and that is horrific.” Whatever word is appropriate for what you’re feeling.
Next, make a list of things you want to do or would like to watch while you’re in quasi-quarantine. Give yourself a bucket list of things—maybe there’s a TV show that you’ve been wanting to watch but haven’t had the time, a project you’ve been meaning to start, or a skill you want to lean. Give yourself things that you can actually accomplish and look forward to within the confines of your home. Maybe Friday you’re working, but Saturday you plan to have a guitar lesson on YouTube—it’s something that you can then still look forward to, even if it’s small.
Lastly, make a post-quarantine bucket list, or a list of things that you want to do once this is all over. This concept is recommended to people when they’re going through things like cancer treatments. It really helps to make a list of what you want to do when you’re feeling healthy and when you can be with your friends again.
How to Deal with a Lack of Physical Touch
This is the hard part. I mean, it’s all hard; let’s just acknowledge that. But this is the one thing that is really hard to replicate and recreate without actually having another human being there with you. The good news is that it’s an opportunity to get into self-love and self-touch. We think of self-touch and most of our minds immediately go to masturbation—but if I’m going to talk about masturbation, I would say masturbation. I’m talking about self-touch as in, literally, take your arm and drag your finger on it. Rub your arm. Then increase the pressure by pressing more deeply. Then go get lotion and rub the lotion into that same part of your arm. Give yourself the physical contact and touch that you are craving from other people. It’s not going to replace it completely—there is no replacement for a human being touching another human being—but it will help in the meantime, and it’s way better than sitting just not touching yourself at all.
And, yeah, also masturbation. It’s a great time to really take the time to explore your body in all of the ways sexual and non-sexual. Rubbed your feet? See what it feels like to rub your knees. Use this situation as an opportunity to be with yourself with less distraction. (Helloo, mindful masturbation!)
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