Combating the Loneliness of Self-Isolation
Loneliness is a health risk, so minimize your isolation disconnection.
Posted March 25, 2020
Many of us are facing conditions that might seem more like a cruel social experiment as we are cut off from connecting face-to-face with the people we typically look to for support, encouragement, and acceptance. Self-isolation is unequivocally good for your physical health, but it feels detrimental to your emotional well-being and your state of mind. Isolation, coupled with loneliness, can be a very unhealthy combination.
Loneliness is a function of an affective need for companionship and belonging, and left unaddressed, it can detrimentally affect a person’s self-worth (Hawkley, Browne, & Cacioppo, 2005). Loneliness can leave us questioning our value to others and where we might belong. While most of us spend more time connected to a device than is healthy for our eyes and our necks, we are also spending more time in digital networking than is good for our emotional well-being. One study found that the highest users of social media also reported the highest levels of perceived social isolation (Primack, Shensa, Sidani, Miller, 2017). This is concerning since we are being immersed in a world in which virtual connection is our only option.
However, the presence of loneliness reflects the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s why a person can feel lonely even in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make some people feel even lonelier if none of the members of their known support network are present, and they feel unable to connect with others around them. And, conversely, with a strong support network in place, even when you are holed up alone in your home, you can still enjoy a sense of connection and support from people who care for and about you.
There are three types of loneliness: existential loneliness, emotional loneliness, and social loneliness. We will focus on social loneliness in this article, but more information on the other two types is available here.
Social loneliness occurs when you don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group beyond yourself. You might even feel social loneliness even when you’re in a romantic relationship with a partner you treasure. If you don’t have a wider circle of social support, you may feel that you, or you and your partner, don’t have a group with whom you belong.
To Combat Social Loneliness…
This feeling arises when we feel left out of a larger group: It might be the way you felt when you walked into the high school cafeteria the first day back at school in fall and couldn’t immediately locate any friendly faces to join at their table. Exclusion from a group can be painful, even if it’s not intentional. An easy way to combat social loneliness is to jump into a new activity or group.
Before the last couple of weeks, social loneliness could be addressed through intentional social engagement with others in face-to-face settings. With self-isolation or mandatory city and statewide bans on gatherings, it can feel much more difficult to find ways to connect with others. It’s important to remember that everyone is feeling the squeeze, and the opportunities for connection through virtual meet-ups and hangouts are skyrocketing.
Some of the cool ways that technology is helping us connect in real-time beyond Facetime, Skype, and Zoom include entertainment options, such as Netflix Party, which lets you and your friends view the same program or movie at the same time. You can’t physically toss popcorn at your sarcastic friends when they make jokes about your favorite scene, but at least they’re experiencing what you’re experiencing at the same time in real-time. Another platform is Watch2gether that’s cool in that you don’t have to be a Netflix subscriber.
A lot of gyms and yoga studios are providing online classes—and while the vast majority of us don’t have Pelotons in our living rooms, you can still feel like you’re sweating it out with your regular workout crew during regular class time. And doing yoga with a familiar instructor—even though she can’t give feedback on your crow pose—can help you drop into a meditative frame of mind a lot more easily than trying to get used to an online video that doesn’t quite approximate your own practice and perspective. There are a lot of game platforms that offer multiplayer opportunities, as well. Jackbox Games are another great way to connect around the globe with your friends and share some laughter.
And if you’ve got a favorite performer, chances are, they’re going to give fans some live performances available online and free to all. You can feel the excitement of live entertainment and at least know in your head that you’re one of a huge audience enjoying the music as each note is played.
We first heard of “community healing through music” from the streets of Italy as people stepped onto their balconies to share music with one another. Music can heal, and when we hear the live voice of another raised in song—or raise our own voice in song—it positively affects our state of mind and well-being. Singing in the shower, singing in the car, and singing in the open air of our backyard, doorway, or window all provide us the opportunity to engage in healing acts of love—for ourselves or our neighbors.
Isolation, Though, Is Still Isolation
Some of the most challenging aspects of this period of self-isolation include the uncertainty of knowing when we can again brush elbows with our friends and hug our extended family members as well as feeling that the self-isolation is overshadowed by the invisible threat of the disease we are using our isolating behaviors to avoid.
When we’ve faced other natural or manmade disasters, we’ve used social gathering and physical connection to help us prepare for and then heal from the emotional ravages of the event. This time around, we will need to stand alone to stand together. This is a different flavor of a united front—but we must remember that it is through a shared commitment to each other that we must physically stand alone while psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually standing together.
Hawkley L. C., Browne M. W., & Cacioppo J. T. (2005) How can I connect with thee? Let me count the ways. Psychol. Sci.16, 798–804. (doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01617.x).
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., Lin, L. Rosen, D., Colditz, J. B., Radovic, A., & Miller, E. (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53, 1-8.