If you're feeling increasingly lonely in your current day to day, here's one small comfort: You're not the only one. In fact, a September 2020 study published in JAMA found that the number of U.S. adults experiencing depression symptoms has tripled since the middle of April, and it's not difficult to guess why that might be.
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In America and across the globe, many of us have been living in a state of unprecedented isolation. Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage all Americans to significantly limit social interactions and, at times, completely isolate to ensure the health and safety of both themselves and others.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
While U.S. Census Bureau data from 2018 shows that, prior to the pandemic, about a third of Americans lived alone, it's fair to say that practically none were prepared for the amount of time they would spend alone when the virus began to spread throughout the country — with seemingly no end in sight.
"Isolation breeds loneliness, and loneliness breeds isolation, and both breed depressive symptoms," Johanna Kaplan, clinical child psychologist and director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., tells LIVESTRONG.COM. "By nature we are social beings, and if we take our ability to relate to one another away, it increases our loneliness."
If you're dealing with loneliness, you shouldn't have to go through it alone — and you certainly shouldn't isolate yourself any further. While in these trying times, you may not be able to physically connect with others, there are still many healthy ways to combat loneliness and find more joy in your daily life.
1. Acknowledge and Embrace Your Feelings
We all have uncomfortable emotions that come to the surface now and then. But taking time to acknowledge them can help you gain power over them, says Sahar Esfahani, PhD, director of The Maryland Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Center.
"Make space to 'check-in' with yourself to consider how you are coping with feelings of loneliness, and how loneliness may be impacting your day-to-day experience," she says. "Noticing and observing how we think, feel and behave can help us make powerful changes."
2. Pick a Positive Mantra
Katy Firisin, a naturopathic doctor at Coastal Natural Medicine in Southport, Connecticut, recommends creating a positive mantra to say and write down daily.
"Make sure it's somewhere you can see it regularly and say it out loud to reinforce those neural pathways in your brain," she says.
One November 2016 study in Neuroscience found that such positive reinforcement can actually change the way the brain is wired to think and act, and it may help prevent us from slipping into a negative train of thought.
The best mantras, according to Firisin, are ones that are very personal and hold special meaning. Mantras you might try? "I am grateful for my health and the health of my family," or "I am enough, I have enough and I am doing enough."
3. Stay Physically Active
Exercise is essential for your physical and mental health. Research, including a July 2013 study published in ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, found exercise to be a viable long-term treatment for depression.
"Physical exercise is an excellent way to combat uncomfortable feelings and improve your mood," Esfahani says.
While you may not have access to your local gym or, depending on where you live, feel comfortable exercising outdoors, you might experiment with online classes and instruction. Better yet, do so with a friend: Exercising virtually with others can help increase engagement and help you feel connected. There are several programs that allow you to link with others in live-streamed group-based workouts from home, including ClassPass, Peloton App, Obe Fitness and POPSUGAR Fitness.
Try These Workouts
4. Volunteer Your Time
Connecting with others who may be experiencing loneliness can help you find meaning and purpose, says Esfahani. While you may not be able to volunteer your time in-person, there are virtual ways to volunteer and engage in meaningful charity-related activities.
"Even offering to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor or family member who may not feel comfortable going to the grocery store due to the COVID restrictions," says Esfahani. "We know that volunteering can make up for the loss of meaning that commonly occurs in loneliness and during the winter months there are still plenty of opportunities to volunteer and engage in behaviors that matter."
She recommends researching local charities to see if they have ways that you can volunteer your time virtually or in a safe, non-contact way.
Despite the fact that social media portrays itself to be an outlet to help us connect with others, research shows that it may do more harm than good to our mental health.
One November 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that several mainstream social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, perpetuated feelings of depression and loneliness.
"Every now and then take a social media break and instead read a book, watch a movie or get outside for a walk," Firisin suggests.
6. Adopt a Pet
Especially if you live alone, getting a pet could be a wonderful way to cope. One August 2013 study in Aging & Mental Health surveyed 830 patients over the age of 60 and found that people who owned pets were 36 percent less likely to report feeling lonely than non-pet owners.
"In addition to significantly decreasing loneliness and anxiety, having a pet forces us to care about something outside ourselves, which reduces depression," says Esfahani.
If getting your own pet isn't in the cards, consider offering your services to a neighbor or friend.
"Despite social distancing guidelines, you may be able to offer your time to care for a family member's or neighbor's pets safely," Esfahani says.
You can volunteer to take friends' pets for walks or offer to drop them off for veterinary visits. Just spending time with a cuddly animal will help you feel better.
7. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness, or the practice of becoming more consciously aware of one's state of being, is an effective tool in reducing feelings of loneliness in older adults, finds an April 2017 study published in Mindfulness.
"Loneliness can manifest in physiological changes such as an increased heart rate, fatigue and difficulties concentrating, but mindfulness can help deter these psychological impacts," says Esfahani.
There are endless ways you can practice mindfulness in your daily life. In fact, anything you do can be done mindfully, from eating to walking and deep breathing to performing yoga. You can also download meditation apps like Headspace, Calm or Inscape, all of which offer a range of guided mindfulness meditations.
8. Create an Isolation Pod
In the wake of the pandemic, many people have opted to create a group of people, sometimes family members and/or friends, whose health and safety practices they trust, to isolate with as a means to ward off loneliness.
"If you can partner up with a person or family and you both agree to similar choices about how you are handling your health and feel comfortable interacting with them, you will have a regular social outlet without the anxiety," says Firisin.
If you don't have a support circle nearby, there are many organizations available to help. Firisin recommends contacting local senior centers, religious organizations and community centers to see if they have volunteers who can reach out virtually.
"There are also many virtual social options now that didn't exist before, such as Meetup.com, which connects you with like-minded individuals, and many have converted over to virtual social groups," she says.
Indulge in your passions: There are virtual groups for just about every hobby, from book clubs to choirs. Finding people who share your common interests can help ward off feelings of loneliness.
9. Connect With a Therapist
If you've contemplated meeting with a therapist, now's a good time to follow through. Many health insurance plans have expanded their coverage to provide patients better access to teletherapy, a virtual meeting with a mental health professional where you can discuss your feelings freely and openly and receive feedback that can help you cope.
There's no reason to shrug off virtual appointments. A December 2017 Acta Informatica Medica study found telemental health care to be equally as effective as in-person therapy for the treatment of mental health disorders.
"If you feel like you are struggling in any capacity, reach out to someone," says Esfahani. She recommends connecting with a local therapist through organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or Psychology Today.
10. Join a Therapy Group
If one-on-one therapy isn't your style, consider joining a group of people seeking similar support.
"Many groups are problem-solving-oriented and some are process groups where you discuss how you're processing stressors like COVID-19 and how to manage those stressors better," says Kaplan.
A lot of these therapy groups are carried out virtually but are still made up of people who live in or around where you live. You can find a local therapy group to join at the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) or Psychology Today.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Psychological Distress and Loneliness Reported by US Adults in 2018 and April 2020
- Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Social Distancing
- U.S. Census Bureau Releases 2018 Families and Living Arrangements Tables
- Johanna Kaplan, child clinical psychologist and director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
- Sahar Esfahani, Psy.D., Director of Adult Clinical Services at the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill
- Katy Firisin, N.D., M.S.P.T., Naturopathic Doctor at Coastal Natural Medicine in Southport, Connecticut
- Somatic and Reinforcement-Based Plasticity in the Initial Stages of Human Motor Learning
- Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?
- No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression Read More: https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751
- Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone
- Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Older Adults: A Review of the Effects on Physical and Emotional Well-being
- Telemental Health Care, an Effective Alternative to Conventional Mental Care: a Systematic Review