Experts share how to combat loneliness while still staying safe.

Morgan Noll
Dec 29, 2020 @ 9:30 am
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Long before we started staying home and social distancing, mental health experts have called loneliness an epidemic—and not just for older populations. A 2018 Cigna survey found that most Americans are lonely, as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and Gen Z is the loneliest generation of all. Of the 20,000 Americans surveyed, two in five felt they were isolated from others, and nearly half felt they didn't have meaningful in-person social interactions with others. Now, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic putting our IRL social lives on pause for almost a year, it's no surprise that the loneliness epidemic is only getting worse.

In addition to keeping us from our everyday social engagements, like interacting with coworkers or eating out with friends, the pandemic has also made it harder to experience big life moments with a crowd. Instead of hugging a line of loved ones at engagement parties and weddings, many people have celebrated over FaceTime and Zoom. Caitlin Kingston, licensed clinical social worker and mental health expert at OnlineTherapy.com, who works with women who are postpartum in her private practice, has also found that many new mothers are struggling with loneliness right now, too. They don't "have that village to help take care of the baby and take care of them," she explains.

However, loneliness isn't just about being alone or less able to see people; it's also about not having as much access to the emotional support we need. Dr. Britney Blair—a licensed clinical psychologist, behavioral medicine expert, and mental health expert contributor for the Most Days app—says "we're all going through collective trauma" during the pandemic. With most of our interactions now happening online in a curated space, it's easy to feel like we're struggling alone, even though we're not.

Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been linked to a number of serious health concerns, including premature mortality, so it's important to take these emotions seriously no matter the cause. Keep reading for expert advice on how to cope with loneliness during the pandemic.

How to deal with loneliness during the pandemic:

Create a daily routine.

The motivation to carry on as normal is hard to find right now. As Prairie Conlon, licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Thrivetalk.com, an online therapy service, says, "It's really easy to get into that pattern of 'I don't need to get up today. Why should I do that? I don't need to take a shower. I don't need to do all those routine things that I had to do before this pandemic.'" However, there's a good reason—aside from the importance of personal hygiene—why you actually should keep doing all these things.

If left unchecked, loneliness can lead to or worsen depression, which can make maintaining a routine and engaging in self-care even harder. So, creating an intentional daily routine—including things like making your bed, getting dressed for the day, going for a walk outside, etc.—can be a healthy way for you to focus your attention. Working through your routine each day, Conlon says, can give you a sense of accomplishment and help you to combat feelings of depression or aimlessness.

A routine can also help you to be more aware of your emotions. So, if you've been feeling low and you have had a few days in a row where you've skipped your morning walk, for example, Dr. Blair says you can use this as "metrics" to track your mental well-being. But instead of getting upset at yourself for breaking routine, Dr. Blair says to practice self-compassion by acknowledging what you're feeling and trying to get back on track the next day.

Consider getting a pet—or spending more time with the one(s) you have.

Conlon, who uses animal-assisted intervention in her private practice, strongly advocates for emotional support animals. Not only can a pet be another companion in your life—one you can safely hug and cuddle with all you want—but they can also help you maintain a daily routine. Pets rely on their owners for care, and having a furry friend that needs to be fed, walked, or even just given attention can help you stick to a routine and engage in better care for yourself, too.

Having a pet, especially a dog, can also help you meet and engage with others—even if from a distance or online. You can meet other pet owners at a dog park with a mask on or join a Facebook group dedicated to caring for your pet's breed as a new form of social connection.

Make plans and stick to them.

The pandemic has made it easier than ever to flake on plans—or never create them in the first place. Even though we can't meet up for coffee or go to a bar like before, we can still schedule plans to catch up with someone virtually or hang out from a distance in the park, and Conlon says it's especially important to actually follow through. "I know everyone is getting a little burnt out on FaceTime and Zoom calls, but now is not the time to take a break," she says, explaining the importance of social interaction for our mental health as, according to a 2011 study, these supportive interactions benefit your immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.

If you notice that you're continually passing up opportunities to connect with others, even if that opportunity is just another Zoom call or FaceTime, Dr. Blair says that could be a sign that you may need to take better care of your mental health or even possibly talk to a professional.

Seek out mental health care.

One of the silver linings coming out of the pandemic, Dr. Blair says, "is the normalization of the need for access to mental health care." Whether you're dealing with loneliness, grief, financial issues, or something else, we're all going through something right now, and we could all benefit from getting some professional help.

While in-person therapy is still restricted in most places, you can find out everything you need to know about starting teletherapy here and how to access affordable mental health care here.

If you aren't comfortable or don't feel ready to talk with a therapist or support group, you can download the app Most Days to help you keep up a daily routine. The app was created with the help of mental health professionals, like Dr. Blair, and helps users create and achieve healthy routines to help maintain their mental and physical well-being.

No matter what option you feel most comfortable with, experiencing loneliness is nothing to be ashamed of, and seeking mental health care is never a bad idea.