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Loneliness and COVID-19

How social distancing affects the chronically lonely.

For the past several months, I have been preparing a series of posts, looking forward to describing my work on chronic loneliness, a subject I have been studying for years. And in the posts that follow, I will indeed share with you two powerful and transformative tools: one that will allow you (or your clinical clients) to assess the overall quality of your connections with others, and the other that will help you evaluate what is and what isn’t working in each of your current principal relationships. But for now, the effect of COVID-19 on lonely persons deserves to be center stage.

When COVID-19 appeared on the scene several months ago, the world changed—at least for the foreseeable future. We transitioned off the streets, left the shops, and came home from work—all to lead our private home lives, 24/7. When we do go out, we no longer shake hands or give hugs. It’s not safe to fly. Markets, restaurants, bars, department stores, malls, beauty salons—all the places where we used to congregate and interact with one another—have closed. The goal of “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “self-quarantining” is to slow the spread of the virus, and the need to do so is clear. But what is also clear is the profound effect this will have on the approximately 37% of American citizens who self-identify as chronically lonely.

This massive and sudden severing of personal interactions is difficult for any of us, because as social animals, humans are wired to connect. But it is especially threatening to those of us who are, or who feel, alone—and keep in mind that about 28% of American adult households are now single-person households. Victims of chronic loneliness have something in common with victims of trauma: Both groups are subject to that part of the mind-body memory system that, beyond our control, stores and regenerates our sensations of loneliness and fear. For the chronically lonely, the introduction of sudden and mandated separation and isolation is the psychological equivalent of introducing random explosions into the lives of veterans with PTSD.

One study of chronic loneliness revealed that about one in four American adults reported that they “…had spoke[n] with no one about something important to them in the past six months.” With the disappearance of everyday social interactions, this means that more than a third of the population is, for now, living without any interpersonal interactions at all. So, the sudden disappearance of ordinary social interactions, has a very different impact on someone who enjoys no, or very limited, intimate connections at home. In the hands of a poor man, a five-dollar bill is a very different thing than in the hands of a millionaire.

I end today’s post with a challenge for you and me alike: Which persons in our lives seem candidates for us to make a special effort to reach out to? These isolation days are the perfect days to call, text, email, or FaceTime not only anyone we might know who we think might often feel lonely and disconnected, but also any of our other connections that merit refreshing. Why not give a call to that unmarried aunt or uncle, or to those cousins with whom you haven’t spoken for far too long, or to that college friend you haven’t seen since that reunion years ago?

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