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A Pandemic of Loneliness

By The Fix staff 12/18/20

Loneliness was a problem before COVID-19, but the current shutdown has exacerbated feelings of isolation and alienation.

Image: 
Woman in front of lit up tree, looks sad and lonely
People who are experiencing chronic loneliness don’t have meaningful connections and relationships in their lives.

As we head into the winter months with a second wave of the coronavirus in full swing, many people are once again thinking about loneliness and isolation.

“The pandemic seems to have intensified the discrepancy between relationships they would like to have and those they do have,” says Geoff Thompson, PhD, program director for Sunshine Coast Health Centre in British Columbia.

While loneliness can have many health impacts, all loneliness is not created equal. Understanding the causes of loneliness can help people address it.

Situational Loneliness

Most of the attention on loneliness during the pandemic has been focused on situational loneliness, Thompson says. If you are unable to see your family during this holiday, or you are missing your friends from school or work, you are experiencing situational loneliness — you have meaningful relationships, but your in-person visitation is limited because of social distancing.

Situational loneliness is relatively easy to address, even if it’s sometimes frustrating.

“This sort of loneliness can be eased by keeping in contact with loved ones and friends, even if it means over the internet or keeping [6 feet] from each other,” Thompson says.

If you’re experiencing situational loneliness, remind yourself that you’re lucky to have meaningful relationships, and soon you’ll be able to experience them in a more normal way.

Chronic Loneliness

The most concerning condition is chronic loneliness. This is also more pervasive, and has been an issue in western societies well before the pandemic, Thompson says. People who are experiencing chronic loneliness don’t have meaningful connections and relationships in their lives.

If you are suffering from chronic loneliness, there’s not a quick and easy fix.

“An easing of social distancing won’t do much to help these people, whose loneliness is chronic,” Thompson says.

Just becoming more socially active won’t solve chronic loneliness, he added.

“Research suggests that merely increasing social contact—encouraging young people to join the dragon-boat club or arranging card games for the elderly—may not be enough,” Thompson says.

Steps to Address Loneliness

However, there are steps you can take to address chronic loneliness and begin building more fulfilling relationships in your life, even after the pandemic ends. Here’s what Thompson recommends:

  • Seek therapy. A therapist can help chronically lonely individuals to evaluate their patterns and their beliefs about relationships. Some people experience social interaction as a threat, which the pandemic can make worse, so therapy can be more important now than ever. “The best approach is to gain some perspective of the pandemic and not reduce human contact to a potentially deadly encounter,” Thompson says.
  • Develop an individual approach. The key to combating chronic loneliness is to focus on relationships that are personally meaningful to you. “Realize that one-size-fits-all interventions don’t work very well,” Thompson says. For some people, joining a club or volunteering might provide fulfillment, while for others those activities will fall flat.
  • Look at how you self-identify. Oftentimes, people will isolate themselves from the people around them, because they believe those people can’t understand them. This often happens with veterans, who feel that people without military experience just can’t relate to them. Thompson recommends taking an honest look at your identity, and reflecting on whether it is contributing to your loneliness. “Working with veterans for more than a decade, I’ve learned that helping them live personally meaningful lives demands that they see themselves as human beings, rather than just soldiers,” he says.
  • Give your time or expertise. Finding ways to bring others meaning and joy, through volunteering, mentoring or similar, can help reduce loneliness for many people.

In addition, Thompson says it’s important that people talk about their loneliness and normalize the experience. That in and of itself can help build connection. Although chronic loneliness might not be induced by the pandemic, the discussions of loneliness during COVID can help people recognize when they need to change.

“The pangs of loneliness are a warning that we need to do something to change our behaviors and way of making sense of self and the world,” Thompson says.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non-12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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