Social Distancing Can Result In Harmful Loneliness Too

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Upset woman sitting on sofa at home
Cavan Images/Getty

Life can be hard enough during “normal” times, but life is far from normal right now and will probably remain this way for a couple of months. The COVID-19 virus is attacking our physical health, medical capacity, business and education infrastructures, and travel industry. Every piece of our everyday life has been turned over and changed, including the way we interact socially. In order to reduce the number of peak cases and slow down the rate of cases demanding medical and hospital intervention, we need to socially distance ourselves from each other by practicing social distancing.

Flattening the curve means staying the fuck home. However, social distancing is creating isolation from our social support systems, and it is making us lonely. I agree that we need to make the safe and correct decision to distance ourselves from each other, but I also need us to recognize that loneliness, the loss of our people and foundations of community, is another dangerous part of this pandemic.

Humans are social creatures, and when we are taken away from each other, we feel threatened and we feel a sense of danger. This need for connection is literally built into our biology. Compared to similar-sized primates or mammals, humans have a larger neocortex, the part of the brain involved in social cognition abilities like thought, language, and behavioral and emotional regulation. Empathy and the ability to read others’ intentions and their feelings live here too. We are said to have “social brains.” Our social brains have served us well, but right now, for our own physical protection, we need to pull apart.

For some folks, hanging on the couch and watching Netflix, finally getting to that project, or reading all of the books is a welcome two-week “vacation.” Boredom may surface, and it may be an inconvenience to stay home, but for others the discomfort isolation brings is far more significant.

Some of us are really struggling in this time of social distancing. Extroverts are bouncing off of the walls, looking for their interacting fix. As much as introverts love to stay self-isolated and recharge alone, they still want and need their small groups too. And no matter what anyone’s personality profile, social isolation is consistent with depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation. For those of us who already struggle with mental health disorders, those risks increase when our social support systems are taken away.

We benefit from social interaction with our support systems. A sense of community increases our happiness, accountability, and physical health. Our social circles give us a sense of purpose, improve our self-esteem, and help us cope with stressful situations.

We are living in a very stressful situation and yet many of our coping mechanisms are gone.

I am worried about the impact that loneliness will have on people as we are socially isolated during this strange and scary time—a time when, more than ever, we need the support of friends and the feel-good hormones that come with hugging and hanging out and laughing with the ones we love. I’m a little worried about me too.

I struggle with anxiety and depression from PTSD, and I am an addict in recovery. I rely on working out with others, volunteer work, and sober groups to keep me well. I am also queer and am an advocate for other LGBTQIA+ folks. Affirming churches, Pride centers, PFLAG meetings, and LGBTQIA+ youth groups at school are gone for those of us who need them most. My heart breaks for the extra layer of loneliness that have been added to already lonely folks. Add all of the worry and losses from the pandemic (childcare, school, work, money, health), and we have a very dangerous recipe for a social recession.

But here’s the good news: support is still available. We all just need to do a better job of checking in on each other while knowing it’s okay to reach out. Netflix has created a way for us to watch a movie with a buddy while miles apart. Skype and FaceTime chats are so important right now. Up your messaging game. Send more memes and photos.

But be aware that too much time on social media can add to anxiety and depression. Mute certain words or unfollow triggering accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Fill your Instagram feed with cute animals. And to keep yourself from looking at your phone every 30 seconds, set times with friends to meet up and check in.

If you can, take advantage of online meetings of the support groups or book clubs you are in. Tonight I joined a live yoga class taught by an instructor at the heated studio I normally attend in person, and it was exactly what I needed. I was by myself in my basement, set up with my mat and a small space heater, but 40 other people were also taking the class from their home. Six states were represented, and some of the folks taking class had kids or a partner nearby. It was the connection I needed. It was a piece of my old routine done in a new way that lifted my spirits. While so much is changing, I need to know some things are still available.

Our kids look for this too. My oldest is nine and the twins are six. They don’t like not knowing when school, sports, and playdates will resume. They miss their friends, but today I made sure they had ways to chat with their buddies via a kid-friendly app. They spent a very loud two hours talking and giggling with their buds. They sent emojis and videos and called and hung up on each other so they could quickly connect with someone else. It was loud and chaotic, but it was the connection they needed. Screen time is no longer just mindlessly watching cartoons or playing a video game; it’s asking friends what they did today and taking screenshots with goofy filters. It’s keeping an open line of communication and connection with the ones we love.

Many of the people who are most impacted by this isolation — people 65 years old and older and people in nursing homes or long-term care facilities — may not have technological abilities or access to technology. Phone calls, waves from windows, and deliveries of food and care packages that can be left on the doorstep will be keys to connection.

If you are someone who is able to work from home and who doesn’t mind the solitude or is more immune to it, then do your part and self-isolate. The great news about limiting your exposure to others means that in a time of need, you will be able to check in on the most vulnerable people who are not only at risk for getting infected with COVID-19 but are also at a greater risk for the negative impact of isolation. Yes, it’s a lot to carry, but consider yourself a super hero.

If you or someone you know needs help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help you find counseling services where you live. Or call 800-662-HELP (4357).

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a group of counselors ready to help the LGBTQIA+ population. Or call 1-800-273-8255.

AA also offers online meetings.

Loneliness is not simply a complaint; it can lead to serious mental and physical health problems. Please know that you are not truly alone and that this situation is temporary.

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