Long before COVID-19 invaded our lives, many of us were living in isolating situations. The pandemic has magnified the effects of isolating forces, such as living alone, having an illness or disability, or being a full-time caregiver. Certainly, the pandemic has revealed how vital our social support networks are.
According to a recent American Psychological Association study of the first two months of the pandemic, Americans have reported being resilient to isolation and not as lonely as some researchers had expected. Yet, as encouraging as this research appears, I wonder how we are collectively feeling three months later—still in the grip of COVID-19 and its economic, social, and psychological fallout. I am especially concerned about more vulnerable populations: people who had already admitted to feeling lonely or isolated before the onset of the pandemic.
As a rehabilitation consultant, I have worked closely with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who have been drastically isolated from their normal social activities. They are missing their “day” programs, jobs (often in service-related and retail settings), and other socially enriching environments. Indeed, I am sadly not able to work with many of my clients in these times and try mightily to keep a few of them from worsening isolation via phone calls and brief socially distanced visits in masks.
At a supported living residence I visited, a beloved cat companion—the house kitty, named Sally—had recently died, and the whole place was devastated by her loss in the midst of the lack of recreational and social events in their community. Sally had been their “main squeeze” for affection, social interaction, play, and love. When the residents told me how much they missed Sally, I so badly wanted to offer comfort for their grief without a mask on, without holding back from a big group hug. It struck me how dearly we need human touch when we are upset, whether it is caused by the death of a loving pet, the loss of a job we are proud of, or when we learn of a loved one testing positive for COVID-19.
When it comes to research on loneliness since the pandemic, I cannot help but wonder who is being surveyed. Where are the seniors in nursing homes, the people with disabilities, or the unemployed parents with small kids? How are they being factored in? Hopefully, over the next few months, studies can tell us more about those who are more isolated, and further, how we can make changes and take actionable steps to alleviate loneliness.
A crucial part of my work for 20 years has involved assessing the social isolation of my clients, including groups with disabilities. Over the past few months, I have created a self-assessment for examining the isolating forces in our lives that might be making us feel lonely and more vulnerable.
Before I move ahead with sharing this self-test, I would like to emphasize that isolation and loneliness are two different but interrelated issues. Isolation means a lack of contact (socially or physically) and the causes of isolation can be internal or external (psychological or socioeconomic, for example). Loneliness, unlike isolation, is typically a result of how we feel, or “perceived isolation.” We can feel isolated (lonely) even if we have social contact or close connections.
I have observed how helpful it is to examine the isolating forces that cause us to feel lonely in our lives as a key to understanding our loneliness. We can identify the internal and external forces that isolate us by seeing the “big picture” of the interplay of these forces. Otherwise, without naming the causes of our isolation, we tend to simply blame ourselves, assuming our isolation is the result of a character flaw or psychological impairment—which only makes us feel lonelier.
Some of us are told, “You are isolating yourself.” This can feel like blame and may not be fair or accurate when we are facing serious isolating forces over which we have little control, such as a serious illness, or lack of resources, or few social opportunities—or a pandemic. Our individualized, self-help culture can lure us into fixating on the reasons we feel lonely without grappling with the very real forces that isolate and divide us. And now we find ourselves collectively facing what isolation truly means. Indeed, it is time for a close look at how isolation touches all of us in some way.
What's Isolating You? A Self-Test
For questions 1–5, choose the answer that best describes you. There are no right or wrong answers.
1. Are you sensitive to social judgment?
a. I don’t join in social events, period—way too much pressure (even remotely).
b. I’m sensitive to being judged by others and must pick situations carefully in which I feel comfortable.
c. I sometimes feel uncomfortable, but I usually can adapt to social events.
d. Social judgment doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t let what other people think of me get in the way of having a great time.
2. Is a stigmatized issue isolating you?
a. I’m dealing with an issue that I can’t talk about with anyone.
b. I’m dealing with an issue that I can only share with one or two people—otherwise, it’s a topic I don’t discuss.
c. I have an issue that is hard to talk about with most people, but I’ve found a supportive group of people with whom it’s okay to talk about it.
d. I don’t have issues that I need to hide in my life now. I share almost anything.
3. Are you comparing yourself with others?
a. I am facing issues that make me feel inferior to others. I lack what most of my peers have.
b. I feel inferior to others in certain social situations, but I do have some friends and colleagues who totally accept me as I am.
c. I usually don’t feel inferior to others. It really doesn’t bother me most of the time how other people live. (But yeah, every now and then I get a bit envious.)
d. I’m very content with what I have and what I’ve achieved.
4. Have changes in your life over the past few months affected your sense of self-worth?
a. My feelings of not being worthy frequently bother me.
b. I feel, at least sometimes, that I have a lot to offer others. But I can still feel bad about myself more often than I’d like.
c. I am a fairly confident person and feel good about myself most of the time.
d. Fortunately, I’m very accepting of myself and feel that I am a good, trustworthy person who has much to offer others.
5. Social impact since March 2020
a. Living with this pandemic has generally made me feel lonelier.
b. This pandemic makes me feel lonely sometimes, but not every day.
c. I have rarely felt lonely during the pandemic.
d. The pandemic has not made me feel lonely.
If you answered mostly As or Bs (on three or more questions), you are probably feeling the impact of social isolation complicated by the effects of the pandemic. You might benefit from having a compassionate, nonjudging, and accepting person— a confidante, therapist, or coach—to help you face your situation and plan how to take action to break through isolation and alleviate your loneliness. You might also benefit from a support group or a group of like-minded people isolated in similar ways as you are to boost your confidence. If you answered mostly Cs and Ds, it’s probably easier for you to join in social events without feeling too vulnerable, lonely, or “needy.”
Part Two: Examining Isolating Life Situations
If the following situation is true in your life, has COVID-19 made it worse for you? Answer yes or no.
- I live alone. (One in four Americans lives alone.) Living alone feels lonelier since the pandemic (even if I liked living alone before). Y__N__
- I have a chronic or serious illness or chronic pain (a physical or mental illness). Living with my condition feels lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I have a disability (visual, hearing, mobility, brain injury, developmental, other). Living with a disability feels lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I am a primary caregiver for a family member with an illness or a disability. Life as a caregiver feels lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I am a parent who works from home. I feel lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I have lost some or most of my income. Lacking income makes me feel lonelier since the pandemic (i.e., too broke to socialize). Y__ N __
- I’ve lost my job or business, where I regularly had social contact with others. Losing my job or losing my business has made me feel lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I’m working weekends or overnights (and possibly missing out on social opportunities). Working irregular or odd hours feels lonelier since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I work from home using Zoom and other teleconferencing tools. I feel lonelier working from home since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I lack transportation for my errands, doctor visits, and/or social visits. Not being able to get around easily makes me feel lonelier. Y__N__
- I’ve been dealing with the fear of being evicted or losing my housing. I feel lonelier because I don’t feel secure about my home since the pandemic. Y__N__
- I live in a rural area and I’m “cut off” from services and social events. The pandemic has made me feel lonelier. Y__N__
- I’ve gone through a divorce, separation, or breakup within the past year. The pandemic has made me feel lonelier through this process. Y__N__
- I am working on my recovery from substance use. The pandemic has made me feel lonelier in my recovery. Y__N__
- I have been grieving the death of a loved one (family member or close friend) in the past 12 months. The pandemic has made it more difficult to find support from others. Y__N__
The pandemic has made me feel more isolated in my grief process. Y__N__
- I relocated to a new city or state in the past 12 months. The pandemic has made living in an unfamiliar area feel lonelier. Y__N__
- I’m retired. I’ve found it lonelier being retired since the pandemic. Y__N__
- Describe your own isolating life situation: __________________________________. Has the pandemic increased your loneliness in this situation?
If you have identified the specific ways COVID-19 has made you feel lonelier, you might be thinking, “So, what’s the point?” Maybe it seems too depressing to reflect on the areas of your life in which loneliness is showing up. But I believe it’s important to name and claim the particular ways COVID-19 has made us feel lonely.
When we can identify the forces that isolate us, we see more clearly what we can realistically do to alleviate our loneliness. Simply trying to distract ourselves from a lonely, dark day with Netflix can help for a bit, but for the long haul, we can take actionable steps to tackle the isolating situation at the source of that loneliness.
For example, if living alone feels more lonely since COVID-19, we can check in with senior neighbors in our apartment building, adopt a pet, or maybe move in with a trusted friend nearby. Otherwise, we can accept that loneliness just comes with the territory of a pandemic, and somehow adapt to the general malaise, emptiness, numbness, and sadness—taking it on as a consequence of the accommodations we must make.
But for how long? If the pandemic continues for many more months, or beyond a year, I predict that we will need to take a more proactive approach to ending loneliness and put more effort into building support networks. Personally, as well as collectively, we can tackle loneliness as advocates for building communities online and offline (safely) because COVID-19 has made us more aware, compassionate, and understanding about the impact of isolation. We can turn our own loneliness into a sense of purpose to help those who may be even more isolated than we are. Many have already noticed how COVID-19 has started to eradicate the stigma of loneliness and isolation.
Below are a few suggestions to alleviate loneliness and build social networks:
- Volunteer, even remotely. Serving others alleviates loneliness as well as anxiety and uncertainty. (Start by visiting Volunteer Match.)
- Join support groups with people isolated by the same issues as you. Or start your own support group online. (Search for groups, for example, on Meetup.com, 211.org, or Facebook. Medical centers often list support groups for illnesses and caregivers, and hospices can be a resource for grief support groups.)
- Find people to confide in, such as friends, long-lost cousins, therapists, coaches, chaplains.
- Explore the outdoors, take walks, and invite others to walk with you (with proper social distancing). As corny as it sounds, enjoying the wonders of nature does wonders for our loneliness.
- Join with animal companions, or better still, join with the people who love animals and wildlife.
- Take classes and join study groups. Common interests, values, and passions start lively and meaningful conversations.
- Get creative and make things for others. Something handmade (beaded jewelry, a face mask, or a greeting card) or original (a song, poem, painting, scrapbook) makes all the difference for people who feel lonely or left out and brings a sense of satisfaction to the person creating it.
- Share your favorite uplifting media and start conversations about them—Spotify music playlists, TikTok videos, movie recommendations, podcasts, or books. Create a virtual book club or start a Facebook Watch party.
It comes down to this: We want to feel that we matter in these uncertain times. Every day I hear the lament of people’s fears of missing out (FOMO) on big, important events since the pandemic—graduations, weddings, birthday parties, job opportunities, bear hugs, concerts, money, love, sex, sports—but hopefully, we can muddle through all this as companions for one another.
Author's note: Parts of the self-assessment are adapted from my book, 400 Friends and No One to Call, with permission from the publisher, Central Recovery Press.