Were you already feeling lonely before physical distancing became mandated? Now in response to the novel Coronavirus Pandemic, The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends “physical distancing” as it is vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19. It is difficult to fully grasp the idea of limiting physical human connection as it is essential for promoting wellness in our lives. But we are being told this vital connection could potentially harm us.
But I Was Already Lonely…
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the only public health concern we should be worrying about as we start to see the countering effects of social isolation and loneliness. According to new research by Statistics Canada, the number of people living alone in Canada more than doubled over the last 35 years. Also, there is some evidence that individuals who live alone are more likely to report social isolation or loneliness than those who live with others. For many of us, especially those who live alone, being deprived of social connection for an uncertain amount of time could exacerbate current feelings of loneliness and other mental or physical illnesses.
We were already living through an epidemic of loneliness, even before the Coronavirus pandemic started. Those who are lonely do not choose to be isolated. Loneliness can be defined as the subjective feeling of being alone and not connected to others, which can still occur when in the company of other people. Those who experience loneliness tend to have higher levels of cortisol, which is an indicator of stress. An accumulation of this stress hormone can suppress your immune system when exposed to pathogens.
Stay Physically Apart But Stick Together
Being told to stay away from one another physically is the opposite of our innate response as humans to seek out and support one another during stress to maximize survival. Humans have lived in groups for thousands of years for this reason.
The new term “social distancing” was intended to stop or slow the spread of the Coronavirus by limiting the number of people you come in contact with while keeping a physical distance from one another. But more recently, The WHO says efforts taken to slow the spread of the Coronavirus should instead encourage strengthening social ties while maintaining that physical distancing. The new term “physical distancing” emphasizes the need to be physically apart, but socially we still need to work together.
Why is Social Connectedness so Important?
There are decades of research that support the importance of social connection and love and belonging. According to Abraham Maslow, humans possess an innate desire for a sense of belonging and acceptance. These needs are met through pleasing and fulfilling relationships with others.
From the beginning of our lives, we are wired to connect. This fact is evident from our early days as a newborn. When an infant cries, oxytocin is released. The cry serves as a signal for the mother to bond with their child. Also, there is evidence that this bonding hormone is released when we engage in positive social interactions.
Here are some ways to engage in positive social interactions while halting the spread of COVID-19 and turn social distancing into distant socializing:
Be in Nature – Cultivates interconnectedness of others and reminds us that we are just a small part of the greater whole.
- Go for a walk at least once a day – each person you pass say hello and smile at them
- Go for a hike or bike ride
Use Technology in Socially Healthy Ways Set reminders to connect with others
- Social Technology Connections
- Use Facetime, Zoom, House Party or Marco Polo
- Watch Netflix in Party Mode stream together with a chat function at Netflixparty.com
- Virtual Exercise Classes
Media and News Exposure
- Limit exposure to media related to COVID-19 ten minutes in the morning and ten at night
- Use consistent and credible news sources for your information
Slow Down and Reflect
- Create a new normal at home with structure and consistency
- Reflect on a past positive event
- Look at old pictures or videos- by seeing, hearing, or thinking of loved ones can recreate old attachment bonds.
- Embrace little connections; they can be meaningful
- Comfort food – reminds us of being safe and cared for
Be Present and Mindful
- Engage in interactions requiring eye contact with both people and pets
- Pet and play with your furry companion
Help Yourself and Others
- Talk about your feelings of loneliness with others. It may not rid you of your loneliness entirely but lets you know you are not alone in that feeling.
- Give support to others – helping others will help them, but it makes us feel connected as well, which can help us see our shared humanness. We are all in this together.
The correlation between social connection and overall health is clear. Social interaction and connectedness can be used as treatment and prevention for feelings of loneliness and isolation.
At this point, it is safe to say that connecting with others during this period of isolation and using technology in socially healthy ways can increase pleasure and continue to release the oxytocin we need to thrive and survive. This can, in turn, reduce stress and increase happiness. Physical distancing may protect us from the Coronavirus, but it may deprive us of our innate need for social connectedness and belonging.
When we are isolated from others with limited social connection and deprived of oxytocin, life can feel cold and empty. For many, loneliness and even depression follow. Right now, our clinicians at CFIR are offering secure video and teletherapy sessions to new and existing clients. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to connect for a confidential therapy session from the comfort of your own home.
Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours) is a therapist at the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is completing her Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto. Laura works with adults and couples in therapy, to support them to overcome challenges related to depression, stress, grief and loss, trauma, and relationship conflicts. Her current research focuses on cultivating spousal attunement following traumatic experiences.