While I usually enjoy spending time by myself, I’m not immune to loneliness. The only things that seem to help me cope are unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking or (my favourite) eating copious amounts of ice cream. When I was younger, I would deal with loneliness by further removing myself from any social contact that I had. I’m a little better at reaching out to others now but, I’m wondering if there is anything I can do to proactively protect my mental health.
As more and more Canadians engage in social distancing and self-isolation, it is normal to experience periods of loneliness. Loneliness is a feeling that arises from a lack of contact with others. Loneliness can occur whenever someone feels distanced from their usual social connections. While there isn’t a single underlying cause or solution to loneliness, we can manage the feeling by understanding how it feels to us individually and identifying healthy ways to address it.
How does loneliness affect our health in the long term?
Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) have found that in the long term, a lack of social connection can damage one’s health as much as consistently abusing alcohol or smoking 15 cigarettes daily. When loneliness intensifies into social isolation, there is damage to one’s physical, mental, and cognitive health. People are also more likely to amplify unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking when they feel lonely. APA researchers have found that feeling lonely increases stress which leads into sleep deprivation. Loneliness can also augment depression and anxiety. People who feel lonely have been found to have decreased immunity and higher inflammation than their peers.
Ways to Fight Loneliness
Research from The University of Chicago has found that there is a very effective way to combat loneliness. After recognizing that we are feeling lonely, the research suggests that the best interventions focus inward. One needs to pause and reflect on what is causing those emotions–was it a specific situation or thoughts that we have had about a past event? Often, once we understand what is at the center of our feelings, we can think more clearly of what we need moving forward. Additionally, pre-emptively addressing any negative thoughts that underline loneliness are significantly more effective than efforts that focus on improving social skills, enhancing social support, or increasing social interactions (Novotney, 2019). While being connected with others may help someone to feel less lonely, the quality of those connections is more important. Having a few strong connections can make it easier to reach out and maintain social activity while our regular routines are disrupted.
Finally, here are five tips that can help us keep our sanity while we navigate social distancing and self-isolation:
- Routine Maintenance
Our classes are now online and many of us are also working from home, so we may feel displaced and our lives may feel a little chaotic. Maintaining a regular routine can help us feel better and function better. Try your best to get up at a set time, have a shower, eat healthy meals at regular times and go to sleep as usual. If you didn’t have a routine before, take this time to explore what works best for you!
Movement is a treatment for depression and anxiety. While you can’t exercise your way out of severe depression, moving benefits us in many ways both psychologically and physically. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five days a week is enough to help your brain stay mentally fit and can assist in preventing the development of depression. Try downloading an at-home workout app or taking a brisk walk.
- Go Outside
If you can keep your social distance (ideally 2 meters), getting outside to walk or bike is ideal. Spending time in a greener environment aids in stress reduction. Being outside can also reduce chronic stress and the diseases that accompany it (heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma).
- Schedule Fun Time in Your Day
Ensure that you set aside time to do something you enjoy every day. Try to find a hobby that will help your brain to really relax and reset like reading, writing, baking, knitting, or cooking. Avoid just binge-watching Netflix.
- Learn How to Be More Mindful
Mindfulness is a life skill that can be learned, practiced, and mastered. A clear mind has many benefits and increasing our mindfulness can help us navigate our unprecedented worries and fears. It helps us to accept that our emotions count and encourages us to be kind to ourselves. Most importantly, practicing mindfulness allows us to still our minds for a moment so that we can worry less, now and in the future.
Nobody is immune to loneliness. As our world continues to rapidly change, we need to prioritize our health and happiness. Developing and maintaining a daily routine, moving for 30 minutes a day, getting outside, taking fun breaks, and increasing our mindfulness can help to combat the negative effects of loneliness. Additionally, increasing the quality of our social connections and understanding the cause of our feelings increases our long-term health. Listen to your body and develop solutions that work for you so that you can live a better life.