The famous line “I want to be alone” attributed to Greta Garbo has become a humorous cliché. The sardonic tone makes it more memorable, but loneliness itself is no laughing matter. Loneliness is a state of mind that we experience from time to time in our lives. Situational, emotional and social loneliness may be short term and temporary or develop into a long term chronic condition. It often carries a stigma in our society, which adds to the sense of discomfort and alienation from others. The perception of not belonging detracts from our sense of self-worth and makes us feel unloved. It’s no wonder people hesitate to admit or acknowledge their loneliness to themselves and others.
Do loneliness and solitude go hand-in-hand? There is a certain amount of overlap between solitude and loneliness, but there are also distinctions. Solitude is usually a welcome state of being apart from others, while loneliness is associated with unwanted isolation. The negative connotations linked to loneliness are absent when solitude is sought after and desirable. As someone who generally enjoys being alone, I have been re-examining these definitions in light of quarantine circumstances. The line between solitude and loneliness has become somewhat blurred during the isolation of pandemic living.
Lockdown loneliness appears to be an epidemic of epic proportion as the days drag on. Social disconnection has long been recognized as a major public health crisis pertaining to increased morbidity and mortality (Miller, 2020). We have become familiar with loneliness and isolation to a heightened degree from social distancing during COVID-19. It’s one thing to choose to live by ourselves or be alone, but when quarantine and sheltering-in-place are enforced, it takes on a whole new dimension. A study of young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18-35 revealed elevated levels of loneliness, depression and anxiety, as well as drug and alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness was associated with an overall increase in mental health symptoms in this sample (Horigian, Schmidt, & Feaster, 2020).
Research has also shown that young adults, people living alone, minority groups and individuals with less education or income are at increased risk for loneliness (Bu, Steptoe & Fancourt, 2020). A study of single women living by themselves during the pandemic demonstrated the difficulties of social distancing and isolation from family and community (Gao & Sai, 2020). The authors maintain that lack of physical contact with others elevated feelings of loss of intimacy and emotional bonding, along with the sense of being misunderstood.
1st Pandemic Wave
The first few months of quarantine were fraught with extreme anxiety and conflicting emotions. Most of us were afraid to leave our homes for fear of catching the mysterious coronavirus. Cabin fever was rampant as prolonged seclusion took over our lives. All of this uncertainty led to avoidance behavior and seeking ways to numb the pain of loneliness. The lack of boundaries and structure in our lives took its toll. Binge-watching, binge eating and social media obsessions abounded in an attempt to cope with quarantine circumstances.
As the months went on, the positive effects of lockdown started to emerge. The numbers began to improve and fewer restrictions were enforced. Outdoor dining and limited indoor dining was initiated, a few museums and cultural venues re-opened and many students returned to brick-and-mortar learning. The warmer weather was more conducive to outdoor activities and the atmosphere seemed a bit more relaxed. Unfortunately, this was taken to the extreme by some and led to large gatherings and partying without masks or social distancing. Hence, dire health consequences resulted in the fight to combat COVID-19.
2nd Pandemic Wave
The initial wave of loneliness was intense but we clung to the hope of improvements in our lives over the course of the year. This brief “honeymoon period” from forced isolation was replaced by an even more profound second wave. Just as we began to see a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, we were thrust back to where we started. This occurred right before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and we were confronted with the prospect of being away from family and friends.
Traveling has become a huge conundrum and time will reveal the full extent of negative repercussions from holiday get-togethers. With the numbers of cases already surging, widespread lockdown orders may be approaching once again. Until the widely vaccine is available and accepted by the masses, the seclusion and social distancing way of life will continue. The mounting frustration associated with this setback is taking a psychological and physical toll on us. How can we cope with this backwards slide on a continuous slippery slope?
The Role of Social Support
Research on loneliness during the COVID-19 outbreak in a large cohort of American women ages 18-98 further demonstrated the effects on younger adults (Luchetti, Lee, Aschwanden, Sesker, Strickhouser, Terracciano, & Sutin, 2020). According to the authors, older women reported less loneliness overall as compared with younger groups. Although loneliness of older adults was higher at the start of the pandemic, it leveled off as stay-at-home guidelines were instituted. The results also revealed that feelings of solid social support had a marked influence over increased resilience to the coronavirus outbreak. Thus, loneliness was mitigated by social support even during physical isolation (Luchetti, et al., 2020).
The benefits of social support during the pandemic should not be overlooked. The importance of perceived connections to others yields improvements in health outcomes (Luchetti, et. al, 2020). Knowing that we are not alone in this global pandemic is a palpable source of comfort. We are all united in this war against a virulent microscopic enemy. We share the same concerns and daily challenges. This is an opportunity for unity and collaboration, as well as learning from strategies that have worked successfully in other countries.
It seems clear that nobody is immune to loneliness, particularly during the pandemic. Young people, including children, are feeling disconnected with virtual learning and being separated from friends and relatives. Social support within our own networks is an important factor for maintaining relationships. Making a concerted effort to call or video chat with friends and family members on a regular basis is a priceless gift. This personal connection will be appreciated in lieu of texting or email communication. Sending handwritten letters by mail demonstrates another form of human touch. Social media connections can serve as a lifeline to a certain extent, but we’re all experiencing Facebook, Instagram and Zoom fatigue at this point. Why not try something old that’s new again?
Professional Support and Self-Care
Reaching out to trained professionals for emotional support is also an invaluable resource. There is no shame in asking for help, particularly in this unprecedented time of crisis. This form of self-care is a positive coping mechanism for loneliness, as well as a boost to health and well-being in the long run. If you have or were exposed to COVID-19, isolation is both a physical and mental stressor. Caring for family members who are sick is equally burdensome and can exacerbate feelings of being alone and unsupported. A myriad of emotions can surface from these difficult situations, including anger, frustration, worry and guilt. On the flip side, you can be the one to provide support and empathy to others and maintain social connections to stave off loneliness.
The stark realization is that the pandemic is not a sprint, it’s a long, arduous marathon. That said, it doesn’t have to entail both physical and emotional distancing. Some days we may feel completely alone and swallowed up by rising tide. Loneliness is a common condition and we all crave connections to others. The number of social contacts is secondary to the satisfaction we derive from the connectedness itself. Our fundamental human needs are much stronger than the pandemic as we ride out this tumultuous wave together.
Surfer riding out the wave
Source: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash