We have all been experiencing the effects of COVID-19 on our freedoms and the loss of what we consider normal.
This virus pandemic has created the need for social distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation. However, COVID-19 is not the only pandemic with which we are dealing. In America and in many other countries, we are facing perhaps an even larger threat to our mental and physical health—the Pandemic of Loneliness. According to research, many people, even though they might have “hundreds” of friends through social media, have never felt more isolated and alone. This pandemic has significantly increased our sense of loneliness so that, over time, we can end up in a state of despair. When we are told that we should not spend time in person with others, we can experience an inner conflict between what we desire to do, which is to stay connected in person, and what we are conditioned to believe is the “safe” and “loving” thing to do, which is to stay distanced.
A large study recently found that 61% of Americans over the age of 18 feel lonely and that that number keeps rising. Besides heightened anxiety, feeling isolated and alone can make us feel out of control, panicky, depressed, and angry. It can also bring on memories of past trauma, a lack of focus, and brain confusion.
The impact of loneliness on us physically over time is significant: It can lower our immunity to fight illness, such as COVID-19, as well as result in poor cognitive performance, substance abuse, and decreased sleep quality. In addition, many studies have pointed to the potential of a decreased life span, because loneliness is associated with a risk of early death, which is equal to or even greater than other risk factors, such as obesity and smoking. Part of the problem with these pandemic restrictions is the uncertainty of its duration. It is the unknown that can be the most unsettling.
In order to feel more in control when everything feels out of control, there are several things we can do. First, ask yourself, “How is this pandemic and its limitations on my freedom scaring me?” and “What fears and worries am I experiencing?” Acknowledging our feelings and sharing them with others helps us to know that we are not alone. Talk with people whom you consider emotionally safe, whether a family member, therapist, or trusted friend. Sometimes when we feel isolated and alone, it is difficult to reach out. Allowing someone to see the truth about us can be fear inducing, but it is essential if we want to move forward in our lives. When we keep our feelings inside, our sense of doom can increase and can even escalate to a place of panic or paralysis.
Of course, the antidote for loneliness is deep connection. We have a strong need to feel attached to and to have meaningful relationships with others. In order to be healthy emotionally, spiritually, and physically, a sense of community and relational closeness is imperative. Even during the age of COVID-19, we need to ensure that we are reaching out to others, even when we cannot physically be with one another, whether it is by phone, FaceTime, or Zoom. Do not suffer in silence…there is always hope.
Karen L. Shurtz, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Thousand Oaks, Ca.