How to Cope with the Loneliness of Social Isolation

Loneliness is never far from us, even at the best of times. While the Industrial Revolution made more extraordinary feats possible, it started making things possible with less human involvement. No longer does it take the entire community to raise a barn or build a house. We’ve shifted toward heavy equipment and sub-contractors, and lost much of our interdependence as a result. House parties are now the exception instead of the norm, and many people would rather browse Facebook than actually go out on a Friday night.

Still, when the opportunity for socialization vanishes, it can feel like a more profound loss than we expected. Human connection is vital for human survival, and the sudden shutdown of many of our usual activities can have a profound effect on our psyches. Studies have shown that loneliness can increase your risk of death by about 30%, highlighting how important socialization is to human health.

So what are we to do when our typical modes of interaction are no longer available? Whether it stems from lockdowns, isolation, or quarantine, it’s essential to recognize your loneliness and take steps to act against it. There are other ways to socialize and stay connected to your friends, family, and community.

Stay in touch

While nothing replaces physical touch, feeling connected also comes from knowing what is going on. Keeping up-to-date with the lives of your inner circle will help you feel less out of the loop. Continue to share the joys and frustrations of your closest friends and family even when you can’t see them in person, and you can keep the dark cloud of loneliness at bay.

Image of girl having a conversation via video chat

Stay busy

It’s in the quietness of boredom that loneliness really makes its play. Boredom comes from a lack of purpose, which results in a lack of motivation–and that’s an open invitation to the blues. Make a list of things you’ve always wanted to do. Books you want to read, TV shows you want to binge, or topics you want to explore are waiting for you to dive in and enjoy them. Now’s the perfect time to learn yoga, start dancing, or ramp up your daily treadmill session.

Stay connected

While you’re learning, reading, stretching, and/or bingeing Netflix, don’t end up in a world all by yourself. Find other people who enjoy the same things and form a connection. Whether you try a show your mom recommended and find it surprisingly good (or terrible), or find a group chat focused on the latest book you’re reading, it’s yet another opportunity to become part of a community.

Do what you can

Part of feeling integrated is being able to contribute to your community. Whether it’s dropping off food or supplies, hopping on a zoom call to cheer someone up, or moderating a chat room, you can still contribute even when physical contact isn’t possible.

Don’t let it get you down

Building healthy routines is part of building a healthy life. With a positive outlook and a set goal in mind, you can get through loneliness and come back stronger than ever. Loneliness affects everyone at some time or another. Even when someone has a ton of friends or parties all the time, they’re not immune from loneliness. In fact, being surrounded by people can make the pangs feel sharper, because it’s not crowds that we crave. It’s perfectly possible–indeed, it’s quite common–to feel lonely when walking down a crowded street.

It’s not enough to spend time around people. They have to matter to you. And even if you have few family members or haven’t made too many friends, it’s never too late to start forging bonds. Find a common point of interest and build from there. Many people are just like you, perhaps more so than you might think. If every lonely person became friends with each other, no one would be lonely anymore. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?

Signs and Symptoms of Loneliness

Feeling socially isolated can have a broad range of negative effects and encourage the formation of bad habits. Loneliness can lead to or exacerbate substance abuse, eating disorders, mental decline and other mental issues, and a general lack of enthusiasm or excitement. It can cause a degradation of sleep quality and elevate stress hormones that suppress the healing response and can even raise blood pressure.

Eventually, the ongoing results of prolonged loneliness can change your brain chemistry and reduce the effectiveness of a reward response. The negative emotions that we associate with isolation is an adaptive response that drives us to seek society with others. In the past, living within a community was absolutely vital for surviving harsh environmental conditions.

Through technology, we have become much more independent in the physical realm. We can buy pre-made food and have it delivered without contact, and we can order almost anything we could ever need from Amazon. Technology has made it shockingly easy to live without directly interacting with another person, and that has only made it more obvious just how emotionally dependent we are on human contact.

It’s part of human nature to crave connection. The first thing to realize is that it isn’t abnormal to feel lonely. It is your body telling you that you’d better make friends and cooperate, or else you might not make it through a harsh winter or defeat the bear that’s roaming the woods. Unfortunately, this means that loneliness is innately linked to your body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, which exists to make you seek safety in numbers.

You cannot simply push down or ignore feelings of loneliness because that will only cause them to affect you more strongly. To break the spiral, you should redirect into something constructive and generate positive emotions instead. The key is not allowing yourself to dwell on your negative emotions and distracting yourself with something that can pull you out of your melancholy.

Limit Exposure to Negative Influence

While it’s important to stay connected, the constant barrage of digital information of modern life isn’t doing your overworked brain any favors. Don’t let your phone, TV, or computer consume your life with constant news and status updates. Don’t keep an obsessive eye on ticker tape screen banners that project importance by constantly moving. It’s important to stay informed, but you don’t want to become overwhelmed, so checking in once or twice per day is plenty. Stay focused on the moment, and get through each day as it comes.

Try not to let your situation, whatever it is, get you down. If you stay connected to those around you, form new connections, and do your best to help the community in which you live, you can get through it. Staying busy by helping others will boost your mood, improve your sense of connection, and enhance your mental wellbeing. Move past what can’t be helped, and focus on the things that you can improve. If everyone helps each other out, we can get through this!