Social distancing is critical to containing COVID-19 — but it may create negative emotions in some people. Specifically, social isolation can cause feelings of loneliness, according to Brian Bushman, PhD, a psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare’s McKay Dee Hospital Behavior Health Clinic in Ogden.
Dr. Bushman offers six ideas about how to overcome those feelings during this time of face-to-face isolation or distancing, which will likely last several weeks.
Reduce access to the three “A’s”: Alienation, Anger, and Unfounded Anxiety.
Many people are compensating for a lack of social contact by seeking out electronic connections (social media, FaceTime, Skype). That’s fine, but it’s important to avoid sources of negativity found online or in the media.
An important question to ask yourself, said Dr. Bushman, is: “Will what I read or see increase my sense of community and connection, or will it increase my sense of alienation, anger, or anxiety?”
This question also applies to what you write or re-post online (rumors, conspiracy theories, rants against groups we don’t like). Our expressed frustrations during a crisis reveal our pre-existing biases.
Panic spreads faster than COVID-19, and panic thrives in an atmosphere of anxiety, hostility, and isolation. We already have isolation. Do we really need to add anxiety or hostility? Let’s not unintentionally make things worse by alienating each other – no matter how right we believe our anger or anxiety is. A shared sense of community will get us through.
1. Seek out healthy activities
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand where one’s sense of time or self fades.”
This is sometimes referred to as being ”in the zone.“ Find your flow by rediscovering healthy hobbies or activities like wood-working, knitting, cooking, painting, photography, reading, or writing. Emphasize activities that involve as much of your body as possible, like yoga. Activities that require you to use your hands have been found to be particularly absorbing.
2. Increase your sense of productivity
Activities that create a feeling of productivity are a good antidote to loneliness. Instead of only watching movies or doing other passive/sedentary activities, start an activity you’ve been putting off. It’s best to start off small and focus only on goals you can directly control or influence. Moderate exercise, for example, is a great way to help yourself feel productive.
3. Safely connect with others
Express gratitude to someone through an email or letter. Check in with others who might be scared or lonely. Restart a family tradition that’s long been forgotten, like game night. As you find new ways to connect, no matter what you decide to do, listen to others with compassion and realize you don’t have to always know the “right” thing to say – you only have to know the right way to listen.
People remember little of what you actually say anyway; they mainly remember how they felt when you took the time to connect. According to researcher Daniel Seigel, people need to “feel felt” during times of crisis. Look for safe ways to provide this gift to each other.
4. Increase self-care and self-compassion
Eat healthily and keep a consistent sleep schedule. Take a long bath or walk in nature. Give yourself an opportunity to slow down and reflect. While this is an opportunity to be productive, be moderate and easy-going in your approach. In other words, now is a good time to practice some self-compassion.
This includes holding with a grain of salt any negative thoughts you have about yourself or the world; many of these thoughts are more of a reflection of where we are than who we are. In other words, adopt a temporary vs. permanent mindset. Instead of thinking, “Life is forever changed,” think: “This is hard right now.”
5. Participate in activities that increase your sense of “awe”
Awe is not joy or happiness. According to researcher and psychologist Dacher Keltner, awe is a mental state where your sense of self disappears, and you feel a shift – large or small – in perspective. Awe makes us feel small but in a good way because it humbly opens us to new possibilities or perspectives. Thus, activities that increase your sense of awe are a wonderful antidote to loneliness.
Keltner and his colleagues surveyed over 2,600 people in 26 different countries and found some common sources of awe across these cultures. Those sources are listed here in the order in which they were mentioned by study participants:
- People: Reflecting on the birth of a child, thinking about another person’s kindness or virtues, intentionally finding good news stories that emphasize people’s courage and compassion.
- Nature: Take a walk in a place that makes you feel humble and open. Look at pictures of awe-inspiring landscapes or star systems that help you see a bigger picture of the world or universe.
- Spiritual/religious practice: Meditate. Pray. Read from spiritual texts. Participate safely in rituals that give you a sense of community and purpose.
- Art/music: View great works of art. Listen to composers who inspire you. Allow yourself to explore other genres/images that lift you up.
- Ideas: Read the works of Emerson, Gandhi, or another personal hero. You can be “awe-struck” when you contemplate grand ideas or theories that help you shift into big-picture thinking (vs. small-picture or just-me thinking).
Research findings have demonstrated that people who regularly and intentionally fill their lives with awe experience less loneliness, less body inflammation, less entitlement, and more pro-social behaviors, like humility and helping.
6. Make time to practice things that will enhance your mental health
Schedule time to do the recommendations listed here and participate in them frequently. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these recommendations will magically happen on their own, and don’t wait for yourself to be in the mood to do them. Do them anyway – even if you’re convinced the research is wrong or doesn’t apply to you. Practice these recommendations with mindfulness and without judgment. Although it’s sometimes difficult, do your best to stay in the present.
Many people who are lonely participate in these activities in body only. Instead, mentally throw yourself fully into the activity in a way that helps it penetrate and resonate.
If loneliness leads you to symptoms of depression or thoughts of self-harm, reach out to a certified counselor or crisis hotline. People are available to help. Although it may sound trite, it’s important to remember that – although you may feel alone – none of us are experiencing COVID alone.
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