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. Here are some ideas about how to overcome those feelings during this time of face-to-face isolation or distancing, which will likely last several weeks.
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 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.
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.
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.
If you or someone you care about feel overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety — or feel like you want to harm yourself or others — call: