As coronavirus spreads, many people have been advised (and in some cases required) to engage in social distancing, which involves avoiding non-essential social interactions and staying home as much as possible, among other precautions (up-to-date information from the CDC can be found here). Social distancing is believed to be critical for slowing the rate of infection so that hospitals don’t become inundated. But for many, especially those who live alone, social isolation can take a real toll on mental and physical health. The following are some research-based ideas for feeling more socially connected and less lonely during this time.
1. Schedule regular social contact by phone or video. Although virtual communication may not feel as satisfying as in-person contact, it’s much better than no contact at all. Video chatting in particular (FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc) has the advantage of allowing us to see others’ facial expressions, and research suggests this technology can help buffer against loneliness and depression. Instead of canceling your usual social events, like book clubs or happy hours, try holding them online instead, and create new events to bring together friends, family, or co-workers. Even just a 10-minute check-in can make a difference, and setting up a daily or weekly schedule in advance can give you something to look forward to. Just make sure to consider those who might not have access to the technology, or who might need an extra hand setting it up.
2. Surround yourself with warmth. Curling up under a cozy blanket, taking a hot shower, or making a warm cup of tea can be soothing not only physically, but also psychologically. Warmth may mimic the sensation of physical touch and activate similar neural pathways associated with attachment bonding. Research suggests that comfort food can be appealing for similar reasons: It reminds us of feeling safe and cared for.
3. Get absorbed in a fictional world. The best stories are often those that lead us to genuinely care about the characters as if we know them personally. Research suggests that in lonely times, fictional characters in TV shows, books, or other media can serve as “social surrogates,” giving us a greater sense of belonging. So if you feel the urge to indulge in some binge-watching (or reading) during this time, know that it’s more than just a guilty pleasure; it can have real psychological benefits. It can also provide a much-needed distraction from a nerve-wracking news cycle; while it’s important to stay informed, sometimes our brains need a break.
4. Practice (remote) acts of kindness. One of the best ways to alleviate loneliness is to engage in acts of kindness. When we’re struggling, being there for others can give us a greater sense of purpose and connection. Having to stay at home can limit our ability to volunteer or provide in-person support to others, but there are still ways to help out. One place to start is to reach out to people you know who might be having difficulties, such as elderly neighbors or relatives, to make sure they’re getting needed food and medical supplies. Other ideas include donating to organizations that provide support for people in need (some are listed here), advocating for policy initiatives that help ease the financial burden of the pandemic, and supporting local restaurants by purchasing gift cards or deliveries.
5. Spend time in nature. If you’re fortunate enough to live near an uncrowded park, hiking trail, or other natural space, getting outside might help quell feelings of isolation. (And in some cases, a walk may be a safer way to have an in-person social interaction, as long as you keep a safe distance). Research suggests that being in nature can increase well-being and produce a sense of social connectedness, even if we’re doing it alone. This may be because the natural world reminds us that we’re a part of something larger than ourselves, an experience that can evoke the emotion of awe, which gives us a more expansive perspective. Approaching our surroundings with a sense of awe may also have health benefits, such as improved immune function. For ideas on how to get more out of a walk outdoors, see these guidelines, which include a virtual guided meditation in case you’re stuck at home.
6. Revisit old photos and memories. If you’ve been meaning to organize your photo collection or back up family videos, now is a great time to do that. And if you come across some gems, email them to others so that you can reminisce together. Although nostalgia might seem like a sad emotion, research suggests that it actually has many psychological benefits, including feeling closer to loved ones. For example, in studies where nostalgia was experimentally induced by having people reflect back on a positive past event, they reported greater attachment security, meaning they felt more secure and supported in their relationships. Other studies have found a direct link between nostalgia and reduced loneliness.
7. Find an engaging activity. For those who are able to work from home, work itself can be a good way to occupy your mind. But if this isn’t your situation, or if you have extra time to fill, one good way to fill it could be to engage in a challenging but fun activity, like a puzzle or game (maybe something you can do remotely with friends), or a creative endeavor like drawing or knitting. Absorbing tasks like these can induce flow, a pleasurable state of immersion and focus that can keep rumination and negative thoughts at bay.
8. Take a virtual exercise class. Exercise is vital for both physical and mental health, and it can be especially helpful when it comes to combating loneliness and isolation. Fitness classes, in particular, are great for providing social support and structure to workouts, and the energy of an enthusiastic instructor can be contagious, helping us push ourselves more than we could on our own. If you’re missing your usual classes, or looking for a new way to get exercise, consider a live-streamed workout class like the ones offered by Planet Fitness. Or find a personal trainer who offers virtual sessions.
9. Listen to music and sing. In Italy last week, residents across the country sang to each other from balconies to lift their spirits during the lockdown. Research has documented numerous benefits of singing with others, for example as part of a choir, but singing by yourself can also be therapeutic, and singing along with a voice on a recording is itself a form of connection, especially when the song evokes a shared emotion. You could also check out some of these virtual concerts to support your favorite musicians.
10. Pray or meditate. Many forms of prayer and meditation involve sending positive thoughts and wishes to others. Regardless of your religious beliefs, taking time out to focus your mind on compassionate thoughts can be healing. Loving-kindness meditation, for example, involves silently repeating phrases like “May you be happy” and “May you be free from suffering,” directed towards oneself and loved ones, and then broadening gradually to include people across the world, and all living things. A guided meditation can be found here. Research suggests that this practice can increase feelings of social connectedness as well as self-acceptance. Especially in hard times like these, it can be helpful to feel that sense of common humanity.
Finally, it’s worth reminding yourself that by hunkering down and making certain sacrifices, you’re protecting not only yourself, but also countless others, including individuals at high risk of severe illness and medical professionals on the front lines. For many Americans right now, staying home—and weathering the loneliness that might accompany it—is an act of altruism.
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