How to Cope With Loneliness During the Second Coronavirus Winter
What began as a bonafide excuse to enjoy introversion now requires us to reassess our habits to respond to the negative effects of solitude
Nine months ago, a Thursday night would’ve found me at a music venue chatting with friends or grabbing dinner downtown. Or maybe it’d have found me here, just like this, but with something to look forward to in the days ahead. Perhaps I’d have gone to a twelve-step meeting in the morning down at the local church or met up with a colleague for coffee after lunch.
But nine months after the coronavirus pandemic sparked international lockdowns, time alone is the new normal. I work from home and live alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. What began as a bonafide excuse to guiltlessly enjoy my introversion now feels like solitary confinement. I’m lonely as hell, and every day feels the same.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding lockdowns, the vast majority of us feel lonely to varying degrees, but most of us don’t talk about it — not exactly.
We talk about missing high school graduation, candlelit dinners at local restaurants, and family vacations to Disneyland. We miss the simple things, too, like having friends over for movie nights and grabbing drinks after work. On the surface we talk about mourning experiences and things, but at our core, we’re mourning connection, a sense of belonging, and normalcy.
To some, our complaints seem trivial. After all, it could be so much worse! A popular meme scoffs, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”
But such flippant remarks understate the severe impact isolation can have on our mental health. In 2018 — two years before the coronavirus isolated us from our communities, families, and friends for months on end — 22% of adults in the United States said they “often or always” felt lonely or socially isolated. Of those adults, 58% said loneliness affected their mental health, and 55% said loneliness affected their physical health.
A wide body of research bolsters these claims, showing that those who suffer from the lack of social connection are 29% more likely to develop heart disease, 32% more likely to have a stroke, and 64% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness also has a greater mortality risk than smoking 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, and air pollution.
Loneliness is a formidable public health concern — and it isn’t going anywhere as we prepare to enter our second coronavirus winter.
As we brace ourselves for the pending isolation, we can prepare to cope with loneliness in a way that soothes the negative impacts, inspires self-compassion, and generates the connection we’ll need to stay healthy through the winter.
1. Normalize Loneliness — For Yourself and for Others
Despite the prevalence of loneliness and its irrefutable impact on physical and mental health, many of us are hesitant to discuss it openly. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who previously served as surgeon general of the United States and is author of the book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” explained in a podcast interview with Brené Brown that:
“There is this deep stigma around loneliness. The shame that comes with loneliness makes us think that if we are lonely that we’re not likable, that we’re broken in some way. And that prevents us not just from admitting it to other people, but even from admitting it to ourselves.”
There’s something deeply vulnerable about saying the words “I feel lonely.” Just typing them here feels like an admission of defeat, as if I’m exposing myself to ridicule.
I’m immediately transported back to my junior high days, when the cafeteria was awash with cliques and sitting at the wrong table could trigger a social landmine. I still remember the self-conscious, gnawing insecurity as my eyes scanned the tables — chairs, chairs everywhere, but not a place to sit — and I knew, in my gut, that there was something wrong with me.
The age-old cafeteria comparison lives on in the form of social media, where we can constantly witness others’ happy moments, humble brags, and friendships. Intellectually, we may know that loneliness is a natural and sensical reaction to state-sanctioned quarantine, but occasionally, we may still wonder: “Am I the only one who’s lonely right now?”
Even during this pandemic that’s keeping all of my friends, family, and acquaintances indoors and isolated, I have a nagging suspicion that I’m not connected enough. Not trying hard enough. Not good enough.
When we feel this way, we must remember that loneliness during this time is not a reflection of our personal shortcomings, but the result of global circumstances beyond our control. Removing the sting of self-blame from loneliness helps it to feel like an inconvenience as opposed to a statement of our worthiness or lack thereof.
Talk about it
Talking openly about loneliness is the simplest way to normalize the emotion, eliminate shame around it, and spark authentic connection with others struggling similarly.
Murthy writes in “Together”:
“There’s every reason to believe that the stigma around loneliness will decline if and when we’re willing to speak openly about our experiences and understand loneliness for what it is: a near-universal human condition.”
Inspired by Murthy’s words, two weeks ago I made an Instagram post and video talking about my personal experience of loneliness during quarantine. It’s not a topic I discuss online often, but a tide of comments flooded in immediately:
- “Thank you so much for your vulnerability. I’m also experiencing loneliness in all these areas, going through a recent breakup and I’m in a rough patch right now. It’s validating to know others are experiencing the same feelings.”
- “Thank you for talking openly about this. When I’ve expressed in the past to people that I’m lonely, it’s mostly been met with responses such as ‘You’re not lonely,’ ‘Theres no such thing as loneliness,’ (or) ‘You have a great job and social network, why are you lonely?’ so I appreciate that you are addressing this here.”
- “This is really such a spot-on post! So much recognition! Very important to talk about this openly!! I feel so encouraged by your words and by all the responses!!!! Makes me feel a rush of compassion for all of us! Thank you!”
- “I definitely connect with the shame of feeling lonely and not wanting to talk about it. I’m single and I live alone so I honestly feel all three types of loneliness! Which is a little overwhelming to realize…”
- “I loved this and relate so much. Including being apprehensive about the coming winter/holiday season which I have a hard time with anyway. We don’t really talk about this directly. And there is a level of shame, especially those of us with a bit of an overly independent streak. Trying to put a plan in place to deal with it.”
With every comment, I felt less alone in my isolation. I realized that there were thousands of people just like me, quarantined in their apartments, feeling lonely, and using their smartphones as a lifeline.
Inspired by this response, I began getting more vulnerable and raising the issue of loneliness with my close friends and family members. When they asked how I was holding up, I’d include the truth — “I’m feeling a little lonely lately” — in my response. More often than not, my admission opened the door for a vulnerable conversation about the loneliness we each felt.
The bottom line? Talking openly about our loneliness helps us feel less lonely and less ashamed. As shame expert Brené Brown writes in “Daring Greatly”:
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.…If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”
2. Develop Realistic Expectations for Your Intimate Relationships
Loneliness is not a one-size-fits-all experience. In fact, researchers have discerned three distinct “dimensions” of loneliness:
- Intimate loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner — someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust.
- Social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support.
- Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.
As Murphy explains in “Together,” we each require all three types of connection, and “lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community” (emphasis mine).
Quarantine makes it difficult to sustain, and near-impossible to create, all three types of connection. While those who cohabitate with partners or housemates may feel satisfied with their intimate connections, they likely feel disconnected from their broader friend networks and communities.
When we lack one or more dimensions of connection, we may overrely on the remaining dimensions, developing unrealistic expectations for them to fulfill all of our social needs.
Intimate partnership isn’t a solution to loneliness
In highly individualistic Western cultures like the United States, we laud intimate connection (especially in the form of marriage) but often treat social and collective connection as afterthoughts.
One might expect that married and partnered individuals feel least lonely during the pandemic — but as the three dimensions of loneliness depict, intimate companionship only satisfies one-third of our social needs.
In fact, marriage often contributes to the disintegration of other forms of social connection. In The Atlantic article “The Case Against Marriage,” Mandy Len Catron cites a research study that found that marriage “actually weakens other social ties.” She explains:
“Compared with those who stay single, married folks are less likely to visit or call parents and siblings — and less inclined to offer them emotional support or pragmatic help with things such as chores and transportation. They are also less likely to hang out with friends and neighbors.”
If marriage already weakens other social ties, the isolation of quarantine may produce elevated levels of loneliness for partnered couples. You may share space with your beloved 24/7 and still feel deeply disconnected.
Be mindful not to interpret loneliness as a sign that your relationship is “broken” or “not good enough.” Loneliness during quarantine isn’t necessarily a testament to the health of your relationship but a testament to the importance of broader social connection. The expectation that your partnership will ward off the impact of social and collective loneliness isn’t only unrealistic but sets up your relationship for perceived failure.
Consider starting a conversation with your partner about the loneliness you feel and create space for your partner to do the same. It’s quite possible that you both have felt lonely but haven’t been forthcoming about it.
3. Less Isolating Tech, More Connective Tech
While quarantined, smartphones have been our lifeline to the outside world — but everyone from doctors, journalists, novelists, and beyond have reported being “horrified” by their average amount of screen time during quarantine.
The very tools that we flock to during quarantine could actually exacerbate, rather than soothe, our sense of loneliness. A 2016 study found that “social media usage directly, positively, and statistically significantly affects loneliness,” and that “loneliness increases as social media usage increases.” A 2019 study concluded that smartphone dependency predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms.
But not all social media impacts loneliness equally. In a 2017 study of five social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube — Instagram had the most negative impact on participants’ health and well-being, negatively influencing users’ loneliness, anxiety, depression, and body image, and instilling a sense of FOMO — fear of missing out. Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook had similar negative impacts. YouTube was the only social media platform that demonstrated positive impacts on study participants’ anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
In recent years, a tide of books, articles, and documentaries like Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” have warned of the addictive tug of social media. Many are second-guessing their relationships with these platforms, and more people than ever are choosing to quit social media or go on social media hiatus, citing reasons ranging from “techno-stress” to anxiety.
It’s hard to detach from social media when you feel like it’s your only connection to your friends, communities, and the outside world — as many of us do right now. During quarantine, you can decrease the negative impacts of smartphone dependency by prioritizing more connective technology and limiting technology that has been proven to exacerbate loneliness.
Some of my favorite ways of using connective technology during quarantine have included:
- FaceTiming with family and friends
- Organizing Jackbox Games nights with friends and family across the country
- Listening to Buddhist teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach’s weekly Wednesday talks
- Attending online twelve-step meetings and Recovery Dharma meetings
- Participating in Facebook support groups specifically designed for connection and collaboration
- Taking online workshops on topics of interest to me (Eventbrite is a great way to discover these!)
Likewise, I’m limiting my consumption of isolating tech during this time, including:
- Setting screen-time limits for Instagram and Facebook
- Installing the Kill Newsfeed Google Chrome plug-in to reduce my time on Facebook
- Affirming my commitment by reading books such as “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price, “Indistractable” by Nir Eyal, and “Irresistible”” by Adam Alter.
4. Volunteer Virtually
This winter, volunteering from home can bring meaning and novelty to a schedule in which every day looks the same. Volunteering connects us not only to the people we directly serve, but also to a network of folks who share our values — the key to combatting collective loneliness.
A 2019 survey of over 10,000 people showed that two-thirds of people who volunteer feel less isolated and less lonely. Likewise, a 2018 study showed that volunteering for merely two hours each week significantly reduced levels of loneliness.
You can volunteer solo or collect a group of friends for a weekly or biweekly volunteer night. Here are just a smattering of ways to be of service from home:
- Write handwritten thank-you letters to your local doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers.
- Bilingual? Put your skills to use as a virtual volunteer at Translators Without Borders.
- Become a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 text line for people in crisis in the United States.
- Coordinate a contactless drop-off of a warm meal to a person in need through Meals on Wheels.
- Coordinate biweekly Zoom coffee chats with isolated elderly individuals in your neighborhood, or contact your local nursing home for additional volunteer opportunities.
- Mentor foreign-born adults with powerful virtual conversations at Table Wisdom.
- Contact your local Mutual Aid Network about virtual and in-person opportunities in your neighborhood.
- Visit VolunteerMatch.org for over 711,000 opportunities to volunteer virtually in the areas of Arts & Culture, Education & Literacy, Seniors, Health & Medicine, and more.
5. Dig Beneath Your Compulsions
The most destructive way to handle loneliness — or any difficult emotion, for that matter — is to fear it so intensely that you numb yourself from experiencing it at all. Though avoidance of pain is a natural coping mechanism, distracting ourselves from tough emotions merely gives us more problems to solve in the longterm.
Lockdown is a known risk factor for relapse of addictive behaviors, including drinking and drug use. A September 2020 study stated that “the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have given birth to a hidden current of behavioral addictions,” including a surge in pornography, video gaming, internet addiction, gambling, and eating disorders.
This autumn, I spent many days feeling utterly addicted to my phone. Evenings found me scrolling idly for hours and feeling guilty and burnt out by the time I went to bed.
Frustrated with this compulsive behavior, I spent many hours journaling about my desire to kick the habit, reading articles about social media addiction, talking with my friends about it, and monitoring my screen time.
All of my efforts seemed like the correct way to address “the problem.” But then I came across a passage in American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” that read:
“Almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems….We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them….
Some of us will go to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid our problems and the suffering they cause. In the succinctly elegant words of Carl Jung, ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’
But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid. The neurosis itself becomes the biggest problem. True to form, many will then attempt to avoid this pain and this problem in turn, building layer upon layer of neurosis (emphasis added). Fortunately, however, some possess the courage to face their neuroses and begin — usually with the help of psychotherapy — to learn how to experience legitimate suffering.”
This passage made clear to me that my compulsive phone use was a layer of neurosis atop the original pain — the pain of loneliness.
Every time I reached for my phone, I was distracting myself in a whirlwind of compulsion — followed by self-judgment — followed by more compulsion.
Swinging back and forth between compulsion and shame, I never gave myself the chance to “learn how to experience legitimate suffering” as Peck described. Instead of feeling lonely, I simply felt anxious about my phone use.
Recognized this helped me feel an instantaneous wave of self-compassion. Instead of judging myself for engaging in a compulsion, I felt sad and loving toward the part of me that just wanted to escape the pain of loneliness.
During quarantine, you may have noticed a surge of compulsive behaviors. Instead of judging or blaming yourself for this — a shame-based approach which is likely to inspire even more indulgence in the compulsions — consider digging deeper and addressing the core emotion by asking yourself, “What am I afraid to feel right now?”
Whatever answer arises — loneliness, anxiety, fear, stress, frustration, rage — give yourself permission to sit with the feeling in stillness. (Easier said than done, I know.) I like to use meditation teacher Tara Brach’s RAIN approach to bring mindfulness and self-compassion to such moments. She recommends following four key steps when sitting with difficult emotions:
“Recognize what is happening;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.”
To practice the RAIN approach and become more comfortable sitting with discomfort, I recommend Tara Brach’s short collections of guided meditations “Uprooting Limiting Beliefs with RAIN” and “Light RAIN in Difficult Times.”
6. Transform Loneliness Into Solitude
No matter how many innovative alternatives to human connection we devise, loneliness will be, for many of us, an inevitability this winter. That being the case, how can we make the most of it?
By considering how we might intentionally use our loneliness to our advantage, we can transform the experience of shame-based loneliness into an experience of restorative solitude. Loneliness and solitude are two distinct experiences, as Murthy depicts in “Together”:
“When we feel lonely, we’re unhappy and long to escape this emotional pain. Solitude, by contrast, is a state of peaceful aloneness or voluntary isolation. It is an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to connect with ourselves without distraction or disturbance. It enhances our personal growth, creativity, and emotional well-being, allowing us to reflect, restore, and replenish. Unlike loneliness, solitude is not burdened with shame. Rather, it can be a sacred state.”
You might consider “owning” your solitude in one of these ways:
Use solitude as a portal to spiritual connection
For many, solitude is a portal through which we connect with the spiritual, religious, or divine. In our increasingly distracted culture, opportunities to look inward and convene with our spiritual beliefs are rare.
Solitude is a fundamental tenet of many religious and spiritual practices including:
- Islam: “It is in the solitude that God molds us and prepares us for greatness….It is in the solitude that God opens the heart to see truth as truth and falsehood as falsehood.” (“Social Distancing: The Power of Solitude in Islam”)
- Christianity: “That’s why we need alone time with God. We need to take time to hear what messages he has for us. If you are alone in God’s presence, you are making yourself available to hear anything he wants to say to you.” (“Silence and Solitude”)
- Buddhism: “Buddhism challenges us to train ourselves to be more and more at ease in our own company, to try and be with ourselves without distraction. Distrusting our capacity to alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves. We become addicted to other people.” (“Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View”)
- Judaism: “Set aside an hour or more each day to meditate, in the fields or in a room, pouring out your thoughts to God….Every person can express his own thoughts, each according to his own level.” (“Meditation and Kabbalah”)
The solitude of quarantine can be a fruitful chance to reconnect with your spiritual side. Not sure if any spiritual niche piques your interest? Consider exploring the following in your journal:
- What do you believe is your purpose on this planet?
- What experiences have most shaped your spiritual life?
- What gives you hope?
- What does it mean to live in the present moment?
- What would it look like if you were living in complete alignment with your spiritual values?
Use solitude to connect with nature
Disconnection from people during quarantine can be a powerful incentive for us to reconnect with other living beings: animals, plants, the great outdoors, and beyond.
A 2017 study found that over 50% of adults spend less than five hours in nature each week. Authors noted that “the increasing use of computers, smartphones, televisions, and other technology, coupled with a growing movement from rural areas, is pulling many Americans away from the natural world.”
Without the daily stimuli of commuting, busy workplaces, bustling shopping centers, and evening activities, many of us finally have time to engage with the world beyond the walls of our homes. You don’t have to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to engage with nature, by the way. Some simple ways include:
- Take daily walks around your neighborhood, and notice the trees and critters
- Take note of the the constellations in the night sky
- Start a succulent collection in your home
- Prioritize a biweekly hike
- Catch the sunrise or sunset
- Go for a walk in the rain or snow (and make hot chocolate when you return home)
Treat solitude like an invitation to engage with art
Solitude offers a chance to explore works of art, narrative, and fiction. Even if we can’t connect with people in person, we can still connect to the human experience using music, books, movies, and other mediums as our vessels.
During quarantine, perhaps we have the time and space to engage with art in new ways. Personally, I’ve used quarantine as an opportunity to dive deeply into music and books that mirror my own feelings and help me feel less alone.
- Music: In March, Rolling Stone released their Isolation Playlist, featuring 17 “tracks about loneliness and solitude that may also offer some solace and comfort.” I’ve also enjoyed sinking deep into my lonely feels with “Human” by Daughter, “I Forget Where We Were” by Ben Howard, “State Lines” by Novo Amor, “when the party’s over” by Billie Eilish, “The Parting Glass” (cover) by Hozier, and “The Art of Getting By” by Laura Zocca, to name a few.
- Books: A smattering of books that address the prevalence of loneliness include “Communion” by bell hooks, “Together” by Vivek Murthy, “See No Stranger” by Valarie Kaur, “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari, and “More Together Than Alone” by Mark Nepo. Fictionwise, I’ve really enjoyed “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi, “Lexicon” by Max Barry, “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “The Power” by Naomi Alderman.
Practice solitude as a portal to greater self-understanding
Most importantly, the solitude of quarantine can give us an opportunity to develop greater self-understanding. Typically we spend so much time reacting to work, obligations, commitments, and external expectations that it can be fascinating to watch what arises within us when we’re not acting from a reactive place but a generative one.
How often do you carve out time to get to know yourself? Consider scheduling time without stimuli — work, technology, family — to engage in an activity that allows your innermost self to surface. Creative activities like journaling, doodling, sculpting, painting, writing, singing, and beyond are intrinsically generative.
Observe what colors within you arise in these spaces. How do you feel after engaging in creative activity? What do you learn about yourself in the process? What thoughts, mantras, or beliefs repeatedly arise? What fears do you notice? What hopes?
“Often, in our solitude, we can discover the miracles of life, if we take the time and risk to be alone until the glow of life presents itself.”
— Mark Nepo
Could the Coronavirus Rewrite Our Relationship to Loneliness?
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to reckon with our loneliness in an unprecedented way. Though an unwelcome and devastating intrusion, perhaps the pandemic — and the many discussions it’s already sparked around loneliness and social connection — could help us normalize, and destigmatize, the experience of loneliness for individuals worldwide.
Perhaps our time spent in close confinement with our spouses, partners, or family members will encourage us to think more broadly about the three dimensions of social connection we need to live happily.
Perhaps our postpandemic lives will include a greater prioritization of social and communal togetherness to give our lives more connection and meaning.
Or perhaps the pandemic will force many of us to interrogate our own relationships to solitude and develop a more curious and compassionate relationship with ourselves.
Longterm impacts aside, we have our work cut out for us as winter nears. Remember to hold yourself gently through this difficult time, and when in doubt, remember: You’re not alone in your loneliness.