On the Verge… Loneliness During Covid
By Cynthia Howard RN, CNC, Ph.D., FAIS
Loneliness has been on the rise. In 2018, 54% of Americans felt lonely, while in 2019 that number increased to 61% according to a 2020 study of 10,000 Americans by Cigna.1 This is the highest level in history; this study was a year before the COVID crisis.
Covid has been like a huge spotlight, highlighting issues that otherwise go unnoticed because of the busy-ness and distraction that had filled most of our days. As the world came to a screeching halt, the quality of our daily lives became obvious. And loneliness has become the silent shadow of the pandemic.
It is ironic that the very thing that has increased the loneliness prior to the pandemic is the remedy for the social isolation during the pandemic – screen time!
Studies have shown that increased use of social media is linked to increased envy, social comparison, anxiety, and loneliness.2 Social media gives the illusion of interaction but, in fact, it is only the exchange of social information – with little intimate interaction.
Loneliness is both a symptom and a cause. In other words, it can be either a personality trait or part of a mental health condition like depression.3 Either way, it feels awful. I noticed my own loneliness intensify with the virus shutdown. As the caregiver of my husband, prior to the shutdown, I had stopped most of the activities that would feed my spirit and keep me connected to other people. I watched my husband slip into his own world, losing touch with everything around him, due to his physical condition, and I had socially isolated without realizing it.
During the shutdown, even my limited social interaction, time at the gym or the coffee shop, was cut off, and the loneliness intensified. It was painful. For me, not feeling in control, combined with feeling vulnerable, put me between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Loneliness is a vicious cycle, the more of it one feels, the easier it is to isolate, intensifying the loneliness.
To make matters worse, one often turns to screens to fill the void and dull the pain. This is like swimming in the ocean to quench your thirst – you might be surrounded by water, but you cannot take it in to satisfy your needs.
As my own loneliness and despair crept into the isolation, I recognized I had to make a choice. I had to focus on what I could control; I could change how I thought about the situation. I recognized the changes I needed to make were long overdue. I had isolated myself prior to COVID – now it was so much worse.
COVID presents us all with an opportunity – to make positive changes to our lifestyle and our internal dialogue. Research reveals loneliness is caused by:3
- Not enough meaningful social interactions (this is quality interactions vs quantity)
- Lack of satisfaction in one’s personal relationships
- Health issues
- Compulsive doing (lack of balance in daily life)
- Negative and fearful self-talk
- Lack of satisfaction in work relationships
To stop the vicious cycle, I started with an inventory of my daily activities. What was I doing to power up my mood and energy? What restricted my mood and energy? How could I restore balance?
Here is a quick self-check to see if loneliness is a signal of something deeper:
- Have you lost touch with your friends because it feels so exhausting to interact?
- Do you have many “friends” on social media, but not a close friend you can meet up with face to face?
- Do you tell yourself, “no one understands,” or “I do not want to bother anyone?”
- Do you struggle with self-doubt or feelings of worthiness?
- Do you fight with your own negative self-talk?
If you have answered yes to any of these, take action! Continuing to ignore your feelings, waiting for when “everything returns to normal,” is living in denial. I believe COVID has given us all the opportunity to change what “normal” means for each of us.
Here are suggestions to help your breakthrough the vicious cycle of loneliness:
Engage in your faith. Read a book about how to pray, start a conversation with God. Visit a church, synagogue or mosque and meet up with people who share this value. You will build a network of support while being able to help others.
Talk to your fears
There is no doubt that Covid has challenged our ability to deal with the unknown and if you live too long in the inner world of fear, your thinking becomes toxic. Challenge your thinking. I like to use a technique called the 5 Why’s. It helps you get to the root cause of the problem. It goes like this.
Let’s use “fear of the virus,” as the initial issue. Ask yourself why at every level of the questioning.
I am afraid of getting the virus.
What if I get sick and die?
Why? Now, this is a deep issue, no doubt. But stick to the questioning and challenge yourself to go deeper. It can go many ways. This is just one example and how I answered why.
I do not want to feel helpless and sick.
There is more in my life I want to accomplish.
I want to fulfill my destiny.
Now, you have the root cause of your fear; in this case fear of not fulfilling one’s destiny. Here is the choice point – you can continue to ruminate on the fear or choose to focus on fulfilling your destiny. Fear constricts action. Instead of being driven by fear – you can be driven by your passion. This is more fulfilling, energizing, and definitely more balanced.
Keeping a journal is like having a conversation; you feel better once you get it out, and no one has to ever know what you said or thought about! Begin and end the day with a five-minute ritual of dumping your thoughts onto paper. Do not reread it, simply put it down and let it go.
Activity is the best antidote for uncertainty and anxiety. When your body is moving, and hopefully, sweating, it is hard to worry! Physical activity will help you shift out of the stress reaction that can keep your mental game locked into negativity.
Has COVID highlighted imbalances in your daily life that are now threatening your ability to feel optimistic or hopeful about your future? Take action, make small incremental changes to bring balance into your day. COVID will pass. It is up to you to break up those patterns in your thinking, and your daily choices that have limited the quality of your life.
- 2020 US Report: Loneliness and the Workplace. Cigna
- Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, and Jordyn Young (2018). No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 37, No. 10, pp. 751-768. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.
2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.
Kruger RF, Eaton NR. Personality traits and the classification of mental disorders: toward a more complete integration in DSM-V and an empirical model of psychopathology. Person Disor. 2010; 1:97-118.