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Being Alone Together: The Social Pandemic of Loneliness during COVID-19

By Dr. Nasreen Khatri, PhD, Registered Clinical Psychologist, Gerontologist, and Neuroscientist

As a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, I am often asked about loneliness. What is it? Who is lonely? Is being lonely actually bad for your health and if so, why? What can we do about it?

Now, more than ever while observing social distancing due to COVID-19, it is essential to learn the facts and adaptive coping mechanisms regarding loneliness.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is an emotion that loneliness researcher John Cacioppo called “social pain.” It’s the feeling you get when distressed or anxious due to a perceived lack of connection with others when you need it or want it.

According to psychologist Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, loneliness has 3 aspects:

  • Structural — presence or absence of others.
  • Functional — what relationships do (e.g., spouses, siblings)
  • Quality — the positive or negative valence of relationships.

In other words, relationships need to exist (structural), fulfill an appropriate role (functional), and be mostly positive (quality) to keep loneliness at bay.

Who is Lonely?

Everyone feels lonely sometimes. It is a mostly healthy response to an unmet need and is the mind and body’s way of signalling that we need to seek out social connection and company. However, when loneliness happens often or becomes chronic, it can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health.

Currently, research shows that loneliness is increasing to unprecedented levels. Compared to 30 years ago, loneliness rates have doubled in North America. According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP), 40% of adults over the age of 45 report loneliness. Although we often associate loneliness with older adults, one of the loneliest groups in society are 15 to 30 year olds, and 70% of university and college freshmen say they experience loneliness.

Why is Loneliness on the Rise?

Increasing rates of people living alone, later marriage and childbearing (or forgoing having children altogether), moving away from family and friends for education and careers, aspects of technology and social media are just some of the factors that can lead to loneliness.

Why is Loneliness Unhealthy?

Loneliness works in two ways to undermine health:

First, on a biological level, humans are social by nature. Social isolation related to loneliness increases cortisol (stress hormone) levels in people. Chronically raised cortisol levels can be damaging to physical, emotional, and cognitive health including increasing rates of heart disease, anxiety, depression, and dementia.

In fact, loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases risk of death by 50%.

Second, being around others lowers our stress hormone levels, gives us social support, meaning and fun, and helps us cope in healthy ways. Isolation can lead to more unhealthy ways of coping (e.g., overeating, drinking, smoking) that damage our health.

Loneliness at Work

Loneliness in the workplace is pervasive. Loneliness at work can increase absenteeism and presenteeism (lack of engagement) and impair productivity, performance, creativity, reasoning, and decision-making.

Modern workplace factors such as longer work hours, blurred lines between work and personal life, working remotely, and changing jobs frequently, all add to feelings of loneliness in employees.

The good news is that there are many active steps we can take to tackle loneliness!

10 Tips For Losing Loneliness

  1. Become aware and name that you feel lonely. Write down your thoughts and feelings and try to discover the gaps in your social experience.
  2. Gain perspective. Consider how our changing social structures enable loneliness. Due to things like later marriage, divorce, geographical moves for work and education, people often find themselves at loose ends socially, many times in life. And especially now with mandated social distancing, it is only natural to feel an increase in loneliness when we may be separated from family and friends. Be kind to yourself and know that there is nothing wrong with you.
  3. Become socially creative regarding COVID-19 related life changes. Being creative and learning new ways to work and connect with others is key. Set aside time to meet family, friends, and coworkers through phone calls, Skype, FaceTime, email, texting, and even writing old-fashioned letters! It’s the little things that count – sharing a joke, pictures, and music.
  4. Make relationships a priority. There is no substitute for developing and sustaining ties, even if they are bite-sized (think 10-minute conversations with a friend). Other ways to focus on socializing is by volunteering at a social distance or joining a personal interest group (e.g., a virtual game or book club).
  5. Prioritize sleep. Studies show that a good night’s sleep makes us feel less lonely and better equipped to enjoy the day.
  6. Make good use of “me time”. Just as it is essential to connect with others, it’s important to spend some of our alone time connecting with ourselves, be that through nature, hobbies, or in mindfulness practice to feel comfortable and benefit from healthy solitude. During COVID-19, we can plan for how we would like our relationships to be once the pandemic is over. It is a time to dream, think, and plan to optimize our relationships now and once the pandemic is over.
  7. Practice relaxation. Even a few minutes a day of breathing exercises, light stretching, yoga, meditation, journaling, and other quiet activities can calm the body and the mind.
  8. Exercise. Daily exercise, indoors or outdoors, improves physical, emotional, and mental health, including decreasing loneliness and improving mood.
  9. Enjoy nature. Research shows that we are healthier when we are close to nature. If you are unable to go outside, you may try a little gardening or buying plants, herbs, and flowers for your home.
  10. Cultivate gratitude. Taking stock and being grateful for the connections and relationships in our lives creates the confident, open mindset that makes new connections more likely to happen.

Don’t be afraid to keep in touch with your health care team if you have the need. The health care system has had to adapt due to COVID-19, and many health care practitioners are still available by phone or through technology. Don’t let mental, cognitive, or physical issues go unaddressed.

Dr. Nasreen Khatri is an award-winning registered clinical psychologist, gerontologist, neuroscientist, and educator with over 15 years of professional experience. Educated and trained at McGill University, CAMH, and Baycrest, she is a researcher at the Rotman Research Institute (Baycrest/ University of Toronto). Dr. Khatri studies how mental illness impacts the aging brain and innovates non-drug treatments for depression and anxiety. She consults to the public and private sector on workplace mental health, app development, and leadership. Dr. Khatri has completed over 400 presentations, serves as a mental health advisor (Bell Let’s Talk, Girls’ E-Mentorship, The Women’s Brain Health Initiative, Jane Goodall Institute), and has been cited by CBC, CTV, The Globe and Mail, The Wall Street Journal, and 20 other media outlets. She is also Vice-chair of the McGill Women, Leadership and Philanthropy Board.