Ten Tips to Mitigate the Loneliness of the Pandemic

Humans are social by nature even in a crisis. Here's how to deal with isolation.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

If hell is truly other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, the lack of them is worse, especially for extraverts, who are energized by the social surround. This time of social distancing is easier for introverts, who take pleasure in their own company or that of a small number of important others. But even for them, extended periods of being totally alone can be psychologically draining and depressing.

Human beings are social by nature, but in this pandemic we are all adjusting our proxemics, which is how anthropologists describe the protective bubble of personal space that separates us from others, to the new reality of life in a pandemic. Isolation when self-chosen has a different effect on our emotions than when it’s imposed on us by others, especially those in command or authority; in the former instance it can be a rich, rewarding time for reflection, contemplation and self-renewal, while in the latter it can feel like a punishment, especially if you’re not in a high-risk demographic.

“Now you know how I feel,” complained an elderly client whose friends have moved away or died. “It used to be the only time I went out was to a funeral or the senior center, and now the center is closed and nobody visits, because who’d want to?”  Said a woman in the elevator in my building, which is for healthy, independent seniors 55 and older, “If it takes an epidemic to get my kids to call me every other day, it’s almost worth it.”

Confined to home, deprived of the stimulation of others, it’s important to do whatever you can to counteract loneliness, isolation and, yes, self-pity. Here are some tips to lessen the feeling that you’re all alone, even when you are. Because conditions change rapidly, the most important thing you can do is heed the advice and obey the restrictions on your activities placed by state and local authorities. If you are forced to shelter in place, your options may be limited to only some of these tips. 

1. Instead of texting, use the phone for its original purpose. Just hearing someone’s voice can lift your spirits.

2. When you’re outside, don’t ignore other people. Instead, when you pass them on the street, smile, say hello, and look directly at them.

3. Strike up a conversation, even if you have to raise your voice to be heard and your spatial boundaries are limited to six feet, or the distance between two park benches. Your body language, your gaze, and your attention, like your words, are all aspects of communicating with others.

4. If you have a car, go out  for a drive. Cruise like it’s the '50s. Get food from a drive-in or take a picnic, take in the vista from a scenic overview, take your kids to a hill and fly a kite. There are still around 300 drive-in theaters, and many are open while regular cinemas are not.

5. Go for a hike and step off the trail if you encounter others. While many ski resorts have closed, cross-country trails are easy to find. Consider a camping trip in lieu of spring break.

6. Don’t neglect exercise. If you own a bike, use it. If you have access to rental bikes, with or without motors, wipe down the handlebars and go for a ride. If your gym is closed, exercise to a video, rent a recumbent or upright bike or treadmill, or borrow one from someone who’s got one stored in the basement.

7. Invite a couple of friends for dinner, cards, charades, etc. Set the table so you’re as far away from each other as practical. Provide wipes and hand sanitizers at the door and fresh towels in the bathroom.

8. Instead of eating all the baked goodies you’re making (carb-loading is inevitable, whether it’s a hurricane or a pandemic) drop it off at a senior residence, day-care center or veteran’s hospital.

9. Hug your dog if you have one. If you have a cat, respect its boundaries.

10. Garden like it’s spring, because it is.