The Worsening Epidemic of Loneliness

COVID-19's other symptom

Posted Mar 15, 2020

Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Source: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

The United States is already in a loneliness epidemic and is now facing an increase in isolation as specialized businesses, schools and universities, social gatherings and the general activity of living close because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Social distancing is the only way to slow the disease enough to allow good medical treatment but it will place a burden on our mental and physical health as we band apart to help stave off a worse crisis.  

If you are one of these people who are being sent to work from home, you’ll find your productivity may increase because of more focus and fewer meetings, leaving you more leisure time than you’ve experienced since grade school.  Whether you're single and live alone, partnered up, or have a family, without the solidarity of the workplace, the monthly lunches, the vacation you were planning, you may find you are fully engaged: Your identity is tied up other things as well as your family.  Life in the Time of the Coronavirus may become a bit like Sartre’s No Exit.

There are manifold dangers is loneliness. Loneliness increases the chances of dying younger.  Prolonged loneliness changes the brain, making its victims unnecessarily paranoid toward threats (just what we need: more obsessing about the coronavirus), can cause disordered sleep, depression, and cognitive function.  "Over time," writes J.R. Thorpe for Bustle, "a lonely existence can rewrite your synapses and how you see the world."

It has dangerous physical consequences as well, including lower immunity (when we need it most), a higher risk of organ failure, weight gain and diabetes, and chronic disease..

As we lock down against one disease, we invite a different and critical one into our lives.

I am a Lonely Person, with or without social distancing. I wasn't always that way, but moving away from established friends in Brooklyn to previous friends with established, full lives in Missoula, together with working from home and an unruly young Labrador, has changed me. While I love the social events I occasionally attend, I'm tired for days afterward.

So I have some tips to fight loneliness.

The first is that of productivity.  Being able to look back on time well-spent makes loneliness an opportunity rather than a curse.  This applies to paid work but it's also immensely satisfying to clean a closet, take the unruly dog to the dog run, do taxes and/or organize email — as well as a host of other chores that you know better than I.  

This is a good time for an online yard sale and can add momentum to decluttering.  Craig's List and Facebook are your friends in this. You can hold your breath while money exchanges hands and you don't need to come within six feet of each other when a buyer picks up his purchase.

It's important to keep a mental or written inventory of what one accomplishes in a day.  It's reassuring, it indicates where self-care is lacking, it can contain surprises.  Accept that the smallest things are still a victory when loneliness is threatening to cave in.  Doing the dishes, making coffee, taking my meds are helpful beginnings to ensure of productive day.

The second is having a passion outside of work.  I can read for 24 hours straight.  I read almost everything, from science (I'm onto a history of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, natch) to Georgette Heyer.

Turn your passion into something useful and engaging by joining Quora or Reddit.  

The third is to foster your curiosity.  Curiosity can lead to passion, but it can also make you a better cocktail guest when this dreary time is over.  Curiosity keeps you learning, which is major source of brain health.  Consider learning a new language or taking an online course.

Maintain your friendships by every safe means possible.  For those of you who are eschewing the gym, you can still pal up with friends for a walk or hike, a game of tennis or other outdoor sport without contact.  My niece and her husband and driving to Utah for an extended bike tour.  They'll camp out and keep their six feet intact while exploring that weird and beautiful landscape.

Make social phone calls or send social emails, messages, or texts.  If you belong to an activity-related club, you may be able to continue via video chat.  Or join an online club for books or crafts or building a sailboat.  

A few months ago, I opened an online bakery with the hopes of making a little money.  It was a fast lesson I needed to re-learn: I'm happiest when I'm creative.  I hack recipes and I'm in the midst of conquering royal icing.  I've learned how to make technically difficult cookies like springerle and molds, and after this royal icing thing, I want to learn to make macarons. I feel a little loss when I don't have a new cookie on the horizon and it's slowly pushing me back to my novel as a back-up to the many days I don't bake.

I find certain activities calming in this age of increased anxiety. I have a little library of coloring books and 72 colored pencils. My house is fairly organized but, except for the kitchen, dusty.  It's time to take out the silver polish and shine up my inheritance, a chore that requires scrutiny and focus and results in beauty.

Find catharsis.  You'll know best what draws the emotions that bottle up in isolation, but for me it's certain pieces of music and a few books.  Dance, sing, talk to yourself.  It's OK to feel crummy in lockdown.  It's healthy to get those emotions out and exorcised. 

If you want to know more about prophylactic measures against the virus, read Dr. Pam Peeke's Facebook posts and tweets (@PamPeekeMD).  If you want to know more about the spread of COVID-19, this map is in constant movement.  But I hope my list helps what isn't being mapped and is beyond the threat of coming into contact with the disease.

Stay safe; be your wonderful self.