How to Cope With Loneliness While Social Distancing

Feeling Lonely? Here’s How to Stay Connected Even in Self-Isolation

Currently, the most effective way to "flatten the coronavirus pandemic curve" is to practice social distancing. But while limiting social contact with others can help slow the spread of this virus, it can also lead to another problem that can be detrimental to your health and overall well-being: loneliness.

A 2018 study of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of Americans feel lonely or neglected at some point in their lives, and this study was conducted before most of us were holed up in our homes with limited opportunities for social interaction. Needless to say, the advent of COVID-19 has plunged us into feelings of loneliness like never before.

As it turns out, loneliness is actually a response to certain deep-seated human needs. We naturally crave connection, and when we can't, we feel that withdrawal in an intense way.

"From an evolutionary perspective, in order for humans to survive, we have to rely on each other as a source of safety and protection," explains Dr. Jordana Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in New York City. "What's most challenging now is that this connection-which used to be our primary source of security-suddenly becomes a threat. This paradox puts us in a difficult position and can cause great anxiety."

While it's completely normal to feel alone from time to time, the circumstances surrounding coronavirus amplify this feeling for many people. Not only are you unable to see friends, but you may miss out on face-to-face interactions with coworkers and family members you see regularly. Some of the most common signs of loneliness include sudden changes in sleep habits or appetite, sudden feelings of frustration, or inexplicable aches and pains, such as more nervousness than usual or stomach pains, according to Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist in Chicago.

So why is it worth discussing the topic of loneliness on a large scale? Well, that's because the feeling can actually lead to a host of other health problems.

"There are a number of high-quality studies linking relationships and physical contact to lower heart rate and blood pressure," says Daramus. "Loneliness has been linked to decreased immune function and heart health. Obviously, loneliness directly increases levels of depression and anxiety."

Fortunately, experts agree that there is a way to strike a balance between meeting the physical need for distance and the emotional need for connection. Instead of canceling all your plans, get creative with your social calendar.

"If you're scheduled to have dinner with a friend, cook together virtually. If you have an online date, just date online." Jacobs suggests. "You can also take this opportunity to reach out to family and friends you've been meaning to connect with for a long time. In the silent moments in between, remember to take time to connect with yourself. Attend. Presence is the antidote to fear."

How to Cope With Loneliness While Social Distancing

As you do this, consider utilizing technology to connect with loved ones in new ways. For example, you can have a virtual happy hour with a coworker and chat over FaceTime over a few beers. For a date night experience, Daramus suggests cooking and eating dinner together via video chat. Instead, you can use the Netflix Party Chrome extension to watch the same movie at the same time as your partner and chat about your reactions in real time throughout. It doesn't matter if it's something you've already seen.

"Watching familiar favorites can be unexpectedly comforting," says Daramus. "There are cells in the brain called mirror neurons that respond to what we see happening to others. They're crucial for empathy, and they shine through in our favorite movies and TV shows. Now I'm going to go back to Sherlock Holmes and Star Wars, two of my favorites growing up."

Daramus recommends planning an online game night and utilizing the Apple and Google Play stores to find fun opportunities to enjoy competition with family or friends. A round of Cards Against Humanity by the Numbers can also provide the perfect way to end a long week at home with some much-needed laughs.

If you're sticking to a workout routine at home, why not make it a social activity?

Daramus suggests working out with a friend - you can use the screen-sharing app Squad to stream one of the many free virtual workouts you can currently use together. Afterward, you can share a post-workout recovery shake via FaceTime as a reward for your efforts.

"Having an online leaderboard can give you a sense of teamwork," she adds.

While there are plenty of ways to simulate real-life conversations, you may still be missing out on the physical touch element. Some of us crave more physical contact than others, which can make social distance a serious challenge. Fortunately, Daramus points out that there are tons of haptic devices that allow you to exchange "touches" without actually being present.

If you both have watches with haptic touch capabilities (such as the Apple Watch), let your significant other know you're thinking of them by "tapping" to text them. Even if you don't have a watch with this feature, you can purchase a separate solution that does, such as the Bond Touch bracelet or Hey Bracelet, which allow users to virtually squeeze each other's wrists.

Gone are the days of weekly fun times, snuggling with significant others and joking around the office with coworkers. The good news? You can actually recreate all of these social experiences with the help of technology.

When you're feeling particularly lonely, don't be afraid to incorporate that feeling instead of trying to deny, hide or suppress it.

Jacobs says, "The more we can work on accepting our current loneliness, surrendering to it, and finding peace in the knowledge that it's only temporary, the more likely we are to ease the pain of loneliness until we're together again."

Take note of this reassuring fact: we are all in solitude right now, so, in a way, we are not alone.