Mclean Hospital
Man walking in woods

Confronting Loneliness in a Time of Social Distancing

March 23, 2020

According to Jacqueline Olds, MD, and Richard S. Schwartz, MD, the coronavirus pandemic presents new challenges and opportunities as people try to stay connected to each other in a time of social distancing (or the term many are advocating for: physical distancing).

Olds and Schwartz, consultants for the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program, are experts on the topic of loneliness. They believe that being connected to other people is one of the most powerful tools we have for our physical and mental health.

“This is the first time when being apart from other people is so important in terms of keeping the country healthy and saving lives. It’s exactly the opposite of what we would usually advocate,” Olds said. “However, there’s a kind of togetherness in having a huge societal push to save lives where we’re all together, although apart.”

Reach Out

During the COVID-19 outbreak, many who are isolated in their homes are finding innovative ways to stay in touch—through videoconferencing, the old-fashioned telephone, or even nightly neighborhood sing-alongs. Regardless of the medium, Olds and Schwartz say the most important thing is to make a connection.

“Many people are a little scared to send an invitation to say, ‘Do you want to have a video phone call?’,” Olds said. “Once someone makes the suggestion, though, many people feel quite relieved. It’s important for people to understand that many others are waiting for somebody else to initiate contact, so just reach out.”

Stock image of woman with book looking at camera
“This is the first time when being apart from other people is so important in terms of keeping the country healthy and saving lives. It’s exactly the opposite of what we would usually advocate.”

Schwartz added that while people who already struggle with social anxiety may see an uptick in symptoms, others are actually feeling more connected at this time. “A couple of my patients who have been struggling for some time over issues of social isolation are describing feeling more connected to people at this point because they have been pulled into planning,” he said. “They’re more interactive with people, even if remotely, than they usually are.”

Help Others

Olds and Schwartz recommend that people offer to help others at this time. This could be by dropping off food and other supplies to vulnerable individuals or by checking in with neighbors. Many communities have developed online sign-up sheets to connect those who want to help with those who need it.

By assisting others during challenging times, we help ourselves. Altruistic actions have a natural, built-in antidepressant effect. “Even if people don’t accept your offer to help, the offer helps you feel giving and connected,” Schwartz said.

Connect With Yourself

This pandemic provides an opportunity for us to connect with ourselves. It’s a time we can tap into our sense of flow, a concept identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow involves activity we find so compelling that we don’t notice the passage of time.

“We can get back to some of the compelling activities that we hardly ever seem to have time for in regular life. We call these flow activities because when you’re doing them, you forget about everything but enjoyment of the activity,” Olds said. “Some of us feel that way about our work or seeing friends. But there are all sorts of things we used to like to do. Make music, paint, hike, garden, cook, or walk—now we have some actual leisure to do these things again. This situation allows people to rediscover the ways they kept themselves good company as kids.”

Maintain a Routine

Maintaining structure is an important aspect of emotional well-being. “You have to keep up some of those habits. They are what make you feel part of the world and functional,” Olds said. “The process of getting up, going to bed, and performing other activities at set times is also important for maintaining our natural circadian rhythm, the sleep/wake cycle that repeats roughly every 24 hours and is directly related to our health,” Schwartz added.

Even if we don’t need to get up to go to the office, it’s still important to change out of our pajamas and into our day clothes. Patients who are now teleconferencing with their therapists, for example, can find a comfortable chair, dress as they would if they were coming to a therapy appointment, and use good posture rather than lying in bed under the covers. The act of scheduling family check-ins and online dinner parties, instead of planning them from scratch, frees our minds from at least one extra task.

“Many people are reaching out to more isolated members of their community or neighborhood to see if they need help. Hopefully, it will become a habit, something we find we like to do, and continue after the crisis has passed.”Dr. Richard Schwartz

According to Schwartz, “It’s also important for people to notice when they stop making an effort to be in touch with others or are slipping into a state of physical or mental weariness. When people start to feel this way, it’s important to reach out to a friend, a mental health professional, or a helpline.”

Hold on to Hope

Olds and Schwartz said they try to look at the positive side of this situation by thinking of the big picture.

“Except during World War II, the Depression, and maybe a little bit during 9/11, we’ve never had an event where we could come together as a country from across various political views and all do the right thing to save lives,” Olds said. “This is a moment in our time that most of us have never been through. It’s phenomenal.”

“There was a terrific article in The New York Times that showed how much the pollution changed over northern Italy when everybody stayed home. There are many ways that the world could be changed in the long haul,” she said. “For example, this period of time shows you can stay home to attend conferences and work remotely. You don’t have to be on airplanes flying around the world.”

According to Olds, the time of the pandemic is an exaggeration of what our society has become. People have given up the habits of going out shopping and dropping by neighbors’ homes. “Now we can see how valuable these things were, and maybe not give them up so casually again,” she said.

“Many people are reaching out to more isolated members of their community or neighborhood to see if they need help,” Schwartz said. “Hopefully, it will become a habit, something we find we like to do, and continue after the crisis has passed.”