Loneliness

Loneliness and 6 Components of Well-Being and Self-Care

An interview with Dr. Tonya Cross Hansel on self-care during isolation.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

Tonya Cross Hansel, used with permission
Source: Tonya Cross Hansel, used with permission

The pandemic has shown that no one is immune to loneliness. We will get through this, but in order to thrive, we need to be honest with ourselves and intentional about self-care. 

Tonya Cross Hansel, Ph.D., LMSW is an Associate Professor with the Tulane University School of Social Work, where she directs the Doctorate of Social Work. Her research efforts center on the evaluation of general trauma services, disaster response work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and towards a better understanding of technological disaster following the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill. Together these experiences have allowed her to focus on measuring traumatic experiences and implementing systematic recovery initiatives that are effective at reducing negative symptoms, but also at emphasizing the importance of individual and community strengths that contribute to recovery.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define loneliness and isolation?

Tonya Cross Hansel: Loneliness is the feeling one gets when they lack social connection. Most often this occurs due to a limited number of people to connect with; however, this can also be due to the quality of connections and a general sense of not belonging. For example, some people may be surrounded by others, but if they feel misunderstood or that they do not fit in, they can still feel lonely. At its extreme or with too many failed attempts to combat loneliness, one may start to withdraw, leading to social isolation—a complete lack of connection and avoidance of opportunities to connect with others. Loneliness and social isolation can be indicators of more serious mental health concerns.

JA: What are some ways understanding loneliness and isolation can help us live more resiliently during and after COVID-19?

TCH: People tend to make generalizations of loneliness in reference to extrovertedness (prone to connectedness) and introvertedness (prone to loneliness), but in reality, loneliness operates on a continuum that is situational and can change over one’s lifespan. COVID-19 has taught us that loneliness can occur to anyone at any time.

If you are feeling lonely, not participating in alternative activities, or making excuses, that is usually a sign that something may be wrong. For example, you may stop attending the book club that you are a regular at once it goes online, or you may stop returning calls that you would normally take. In other cases, people may be reaching out in different ways, even more than they normally would—this is a sign of resilience that will likely continue beyond COVID-19.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?

TCH: Daily check-ins can help foster resilience. Getting in the habit of asking yourself questions about the components of well-being and self-care can help you identify areas that are going well and those in need of change.

  • Physical: Are you tired, hungry, or not feeling well?
  • Emotional: Are you happy, sad, or angry?
  • Social: Are you lonely, do you have at least one quality connection?
  • SpiritualDo you have time dedicated to your religious practices, mindfulness, and/or meditation?
  • Intellectual: Is your mind engaged or challenged in daily activities?
  • Personal: Do you have stability in finance and/or housing?

The goal in reflecting on these aspects of life is not perfection; rather, it is to find areas of change that can help shift your responses in a more positive direction. Similarly, identifying areas that you are comfortable with or are going well can help balance out those areas that are not going as well. For example, if you noted fatigue, would it be possible to shift your bedtime up an hour? Acknowledging small gains and accomplishments or contentment in any of these areas can be very important for building long-term resilience.

JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

TCH: Most people have ups and downs, meaning that at any time they could be extremely worried or nervous and the next they could feel content or accomplished. Active listening and support are really necessary in this COVID-19 era. Encourage friends and family to go for a walk (while being mindful of social distancing recommendations), and practice mindfulness by being in the moment.

Schedule regular calls or texts with friends and family to see how they are doing. If this does not sit well with them, ask them to check in on you—it might help them as well.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

TCH: Specifically in regard to loneliness, we are interested in connection fatigue. Early on in the pandemic, we were concerned with the lack of connection, yet many have risen to this challenge and found creative and safe ways to stay connected. As we continue with social distancing measures, we have recently heard stories of “Zoom fatigue” or a lack of quality in their interpersonal connections. As discussed earlier, the quality of connections is equally important to combatting loneliness.

In general, there are very few pandemic studies, making it difficult to understand the psychological impacts of COVID-19. For other types of disasters, people usually say a year for recovery, but from Katrina, we know that recovering can take much longer and that predicting the “end” of this biological disaster is impossible. In the meantime, we are conducting behavioral health studies to better understand the immediate and longer-term consequences of such a disaster. Until we have more scientific evidence, the most important thing to focus on is that people are amazingly resilient and that we will come back.

References

Saltzman, L. Y., Hansel, T. C., & Bordnick, P. S. (2020). Loneliness, isolation, and social support factors in post-COVID-19 mental health. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S55-S57. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000703