Tools for addressing loneliness
When the pandemic first broke out, the focus of attention was on keeping people physically healthy and preventing a total breakdown of the economy. But now we are all well aware that mental health has become a major concern. Many who struggled with anxiety and depression before the pandemic now find that their symptoms have returned or worsened. Others who never have dealt with anxiety and depression before have found themselves struggling emotionally due to all this stress.
While there are many reasons why people are struggling emotionally, the fact that the pandemic has disrupted our social relationships is a major one. Human beings are social animals, and decades of research show that our desire to belong to a group and to be loved and appreciated are major forces that drive our behavior.
The stay-at-home orders prevented many from seeing beloved family members and friends, meeting new people and participating in social activities that gave them a sense of purpose and balance in their lives. It also has kept people from gathering for important milestones, like graduations, weddings and funerals. As a result, many people are experiencing profound loneliness.
Even as our local businesses reopen, it is likely that it will be a long time before our social lives return to pre-pandemic times. Fortunately, there are five tips outlined below that you can use in the meantime to combat the effects of loneliness.
Tip #1: Check in with your values
Before the pandemic struck, people sometimes took social occasions for granted and might even have resented having to participate in them. Meeting friends for dinner, visiting family members and attending work functions sometimes felt like an obligation. But the pandemic has reminded us that socializing is vital to our health and happiness.
One important first step toward dealing with loneliness is to get in touch with our values regarding relationships.
As first reviewed in the “Stretched too Thin” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package, values are the things we find meaningful in life. They are different from goals, which are specific tasks we want to accomplish or milestones we want to achieve. Sending your mother a present for her birthday is a goal. But why are you doing it? Maybe you do it to make her happy, and her happiness is important to you. Maybe it’s because you value your relationship with your mother or because you want to be thought of as a good son or daughter.
It can be helpful to think about the relationships we value most. What relationships are most important to you right now? Why are they important? What do you get out of these relationships? Answering such questions can help you figure out who you should prioritize in your social outreach. And checking in on other kinds of values can help you figure out where to direct your focus and energy when you are taking a break from these social exchanges.
On your own: Assess your values, paying particular attention to those that align with relationships and determine whether you need to adjust how you are using your time to give those relationships greater priority.
Tip #2: Take stock of your social network
Another way that we get stuck on “autopilot” in our social lives is by only socializing with people like your coworkers or partner’s friends because it’s most convenient to do so rather than making the effort to reach out to your larger social network.
It’s a good idea to ask yourself, “Are there other important relationships that I am neglecting?” Maybe there are relatives you only talk to during the holidays but would like to stay in touch with more often. Maybe there are friends from childhood or college that you always meant to contact but haven’t.
Or maybe there are people you wanted to befriend, but didn’t, perhaps because it made you feel anxious. (We cover skills for dealing with that in a tip below.)
One way to combat loneliness is to think “outside the box” and identify people with whom you can socialize. You can also brainstorm about opportunities to meet new people. Even if you must stay at home to be safe, there are countless community organizations, professional groups and online communities for potential connections.
Tip #3: Practice balanced thinking when you become anxious about socializing
Feeling anxious about socializing is common and affects people differently. Some people fear that they will do something socially awkward when meeting someone new or think that other people will judge them negatively. For others, this develops into a serious pattern of fear and avoidance that prevents them from being around others.
Thankfully, research has shown that there are very helpful and effective ways of dealing with anxious thoughts that arise out of social situations.
While anxious thoughts are justified when there truly is something to fear, many times these thoughts are exaggerated, distorted or unhelpful. This happens when we overestimate the odds that something bad will happen or when we catastrophize by thinking that a negative outcome will be much worse and harder to manage than actually is the case.
There are steps we can take to respond to inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts in a productive way, as we described in the “Recovering from Grief and Trauma” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package.
Tip #4: Becoming socially active even when you don’t feel like it
When we get sad or anxious, socializing with others can be difficult and feel less rewarding. Although that seems understandable, isolating yourself from people you care about usually makes feelings of loneliness, boredom and hopelessness worse.
Because of this, it’s important that you socialize even when you don’t feel like it. Rather than give in to our sadness and fear, try doing the opposite. You may think: “I’m just going to bring people down if I talk to them, so it’s better that I sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day.” But it’s important to fight against this pattern by reaching out to someone in your social network.
Even if spending time with people doesn’t feel as rewarding or enjoyable as it once did when you were happy and excited, there still are benefits to being around people. Socializing is as important as exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors. It’s helpful for your physical and mental health even when you don’t feel like it.
Tip #5: Find the silver linings
Feelings of loneliness usually worsen our mood. As a result, some people who are feeling lonely start to see things as negative and even hopeless. They may think: “Why reach out to people when so many people have disappointed me in the past?”
A skill to combat this tendency to focus on the negative is to practice finding the silver linings in different situations, a strategy first described in the “Strategies to Manage Worrying” segment of the Care Package. Finding the “not so bad” or even positive aspects of any situation can help break the negativity cycle and lighten our mood. Consider the following:
- It’s hugely disappointing when important events like vacations, graduations, weddings and reunions are canceled or postponed. But a break from all these “big events” can give you time to focus on relationships you’ve been neglecting.
- Not being able to see your loved ones in person during this time is sad. On the other hand, there are huge benefits to living in a time when we have the technology that makes it so easy to communicate with people who are far away.
Use one of the techniques
To recap, feeling lonely and hopeless or being anxious about socializing is normal, especially during a stressful time like the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s vital that we try to stay socially active. We’ve given you information on skills to help you do that even when you don’t feel like it. We encourage you to try them out when you’re feeling lonely.
Downloadable resources to use on your own