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My Relationships (And I) Are Changing Due to COVID-19

Dealing with loneliness as a college student during the pandemic

By Laura Chen

This post is part of our ongoing series highlighting first-hand perspectives on the pandemic from community members and Atlas stakeholders. Laura Chen is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago and Research Assistant at the Center for Spatial Data Science .

Graphic by Laura Chen.

Since working with the Center for Spatial Data Science as a research assistant for the US COVID Atlas, I’ve become a lot more aware of how easily COVID-19 can spread from county-to-county and person-to-person. Since March, the United States already has over 21 million cases, with every state seeing over 5% positivity rates. This fall and winter, there have been dramatic increases in cases in nearly every state.

While working closely with this data didn’t make the challenges of isolation any easier, it was enough to underscore the severity of this virus and why social distancing, wearing masks and other safety measures remain necessary precautions. On top of this, being a university student during the pandemic also brought on its own challenges — namely mental and emotional ones. But throughout these months, I’ve found some techniques that have helped me grow and better myself, techniques that will likely help me move through the world even after the pandemic is over.

The onset of COVID-19 disrupted not only my final quarter as a junior in college but also my senior year. When the switch to remote learning happened, it came all of a sudden, and like most people my age, it left me uneasy. I remember wondering, stressing, what finishing classes and above all, spending all my time at home would be like. I anticipated lack of focus, lack of motivation, boredom, anxiety. Of course, the shift did bring challenges like all of the above. What I didn’t realize is how much time I would have to finally reflect on the many gifts I had in my life. The many things worth being grateful for. One, of course, being my health. Another being my friends and family. The list goes on.

It would be a lie to say I didn’t feel lonely. Some days I would pass the time all day in bed, freaking out over how I was living my life, feeling horrible about how I frequently ran into existential crises in my mind and felt easily overwhelmed by the world. I felt deeply unmotivated, drained, and disinterested thinking about my future. I wasn’t alone in this feeling too — according to research by loneliness expert Dr. Michelle Lim at Swinburne University of Technology, 2 in 3 American and British residents report feeling more lonely since COVID-19 and young adults reported more loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress than other adults.

But there were also silver linings, like my relationships. It would be remiss to say my relationships were the same as they were before the quarantine. Face-to-face connection was now a rarity, even an impossibility for most of the first lockdown. So I did what most people did: I Zoomed, I FaceTimed, I called. My friends and I made consistent efforts to FaceTime each other whenever we could just to talk, play games from our childhood like Club Penguin and Wizard101 or study in each other’s company in pure, comfortable silence. Professor Natalie Pennington, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), recommends regular interactions like this. Pennington suggests that “such interactions can strengthen bonds and fill the gap left by the absence of those every day, in-person encounters.” She herself participated in a virtual weekly poker game with friends she hadn’t been frequently spoken to pre-pandemic.

“I get to sit there and chat with people, and the games can go on for four or five hours,” she told the UNLV news center. “I can just casually talk with people. We need that casual encounter. And I think if I didn’t have that, I would be more inclined to say ‘I need to go out.’”

I learned throughout the months that while talking to others over the internet couldn’t replace physical interactions, it reminded me to be grateful for the people in my life. It reminded me to embrace the time I spent talking to my loved ones even if our conversations were digital. I learned that while the physicality of most of my relationships was gone, I still felt deeply loved.

Realistically, I couldn’t spend all my time FaceTiming people. Moreover, I still felt stuck. With a lot of free time, it was easy to wallow in worry. And it was one thing to feel worried for a few minutes and another to get lost in the feeling for days, even weeks, especially when I was just to myself. So, a major change for me during quarantine was making a genuine effort to replace old habits with new ones. I wanted to start fueling my brain with interesting, positive content that enforced productive change in my life.

Luckily, I had tools around me to get started. Learning the best tips to approaching happiness and wellbeing started with listening to podcasts. The following are some of my favorites: Happiness Lab, Hidden Brain, and TedX Radio Hour. I particularly enjoyed a recent episode of Happiness Lab, a podcast that shares the latest scientific research and stories on happiness hosted by Psychology Yale Professor Dr. Laurie Santos.

The Happiness Lab’s episode on how-to-kick-bad-habits-and-start-good-ones focused exactly on one of my goals: reversing old habits with good ones. My habit of ruminating over the future was something I definitely wanted to work on. The episode encouraged me to change parts of my environment that would help me accomplish this goal more smoothly. More specifically, I set up my daily surroundings to accommodate healthier habits, like being regularly grateful, exercising, even meditating. This included leaving a gratitude journal next to my bed to write at least two things I was grateful for before I went to sleep (the Happiness Lab has a few great episodes on gratitude, including this one) or listening to podcasts while doing my hair and makeup in the morning, some activities I already enjoyed before COVID-19 started. Practicing more mindful and healthy habits for the long run led me to appreciate the things I already had (access to wifi to talk to my friends, proper shelter, etc.), instead of repeatedly wishing for more, like money, friends, or popularity. All of this, of course, took consistent work, which luckily the Happiness Lab has an episode for, too.

I learned that changing my relationship with myself helped sustain and enrich my relationships with others. This helped me both appreciate the time I spent alone, as well as the time I spent talking to others, even if those interactions were now digital. I also found that penciling in time to connect with others was incredibly important for my well-being. My relationship with myself morphed into a version much healthier and more fulfilling than I last remember in March when everything first started looking helpless, when COVID cases were rising exponentially across cities (including New York, where I currently live) and lockdowns were going into effect while schools were shutting down. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for what I do have, and now, I really do look forward to the future.

With several vaccines finally rolling out and the arrival of a new year, it is easy to be overly hopeful — expectant that life will go back to “normal.” However, this is still going to take time. It is important to be mindful of the increasing amount of COVID-19 cases that are still on the rise, especially with the country seeing over 5% positivity rates in each state. Technology will still have to be our primary means of interaction for the next few months but that doesn’t mean we can’t use this moment as an opportunity to evaluate our relationships with ourselves and those dear to us.

Edits by Susan Paykin.

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US Covid Atlas

US Covid Atlas

The US COVID Atlas is a near real-time visualization tool that helps you access county-level COVID data & spatial analysis. Led by University of Chicago.