A national survey shows that loneliness is higher than ever before — of 20,000 U.S. adults surveyed, more than half report they either sometimes or always feel alone. Compound that statistic with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and mental health experts will agree that this holiday season will be the toughest part of 2020 for many Americans.
Sabine Schmid, PhD, LP, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Minnesota Medical School and a licensed psychologist with M Health Fairview, explains how people can recognize and prepare for social isolation and loneliness during the holidays due to the pandemic or other social factors.
Q: Why is recognizing and addressing loneliness important for those experiencing it?
Dr. Schmid: Social connectedness, a basic human need, is essential for coping with stress and overall well-being. While feeling lonely is simply a signal telling us to connect with others, prolonged loneliness is defined as a distressing experience due to not getting our social needs met for an extended period of time. Clinical studies provide evidence that prolonged loneliness — or what we perceive as social isolation — is detrimental to mental and physical health and, in fact, related to depression, anxiety, substance use, poor sleep, decreased physical activity, impaired cardiovascular functioning, and an overall shortened lifespan.
The pandemic and restrictions for social contact — though crucial for reducing infection rates — have made the problem worse for many. In addition, because loneliness is stigmatized, many may not want to admit, even to themselves, that they feel lonely. In order to overcome loneliness, we must first recognize and understand the problem by identifying our needs, our desires, and whatever is getting in the way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Q: How can people recognize the common behaviors or attitudes associated with loneliness?
Dr. Schmid: While loneliness may be caused by the loss of a meaningful relationship — like the death of a loved one, children leaving home, or job loss — and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the beliefs and behaviors associated with loneliness that keep those affected stuck.
Feeling socially isolated often comes with various thinking patterns, such as over-generalization where people use statements like, “Nobody cares about me. Nobody understands me. I don’t belong.” They can feel helpless, thinking things like, “I can’t do anything about this,” and be hopeless, stating to themselves, “I will feel lonely for the rest of my life.” Behaviors related to social isolation include excessive rumination about the past, worrying about the future and, maybe most importantly, avoidance of anything that might trigger thoughts or feelings about being lonely. Avoidance of distress is generally adaptive. However, lonely people ironically tend to avoid social activities, even with friends, which could actually help with loneliness and disconfirm their helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, the loneliness beliefs contribute to ongoing avoidance of social contacts, which in turn, confirms these beliefs in a self-fulfilling prophecy that becomes a vicious cycle.
Q: How can people cope with loneliness this holiday season due to COVID-19?
Dr. Schmid: Once we figure out what our needs and desires are, it is important to understand what is in our control — only our own actions — versus what is not in our control, which are things like the pandemic, the past, the weather, or what others choose to do. When lonely we tend to dwell on the things we cannot control, which does not change the situation. Understanding this distinction allows us to focus our energy and effort on our actions.
Seven ways to turn your loneliness into action this holiday season:
- Express your connection in actions. Engage in activities like cooking a dish for others to pick up or making a craft that symbolizes your friendship.
- Send something in place of yourself — a message, a greeting card, a little present, or a photograph.
- Virtually celebrate holidays wherever your loved ones may be by joining via a video conferencing program.
- Spread kindness. Leave a painted rock on your neighbor’s door, write a message in chalk on your sidewalk, place an uplifting sign or object in your window, volunteer to bring groceries to vulnerable neighbors.
- Connect to others in a similar situation as you. This could be a neighbor or friend who is also staying home away from their family this holiday season.
- “Buddy up” with distant friends or family and establish activity goals such as physical exercise, reading a book, or learning a new skill.
- Exercise gratitude. Find one thing you are grateful for every day.
Q: How can people cope with loneliness this holiday season after the loss of a loved one?
Dr. Schmid: Loss of a loved one may be the greatest stressor of all. From grief experts, we know that grief is “a form of love” and a natural, universal and complex response to loss. There are no predictable stages, because everyone copes and adapts in their unique way.
Whether we lost a loved one to COVID-19 or to other causes, the pandemic has complicated our grieving this year. Being connected with loved ones makes us feel secure and provides solace when we are grieving. We do not grieve well alone. Even as we need to practice physical distancing, it is paramount to stay socially and emotionally connected.
This year requires additional flexibility in order to connect around our love for the deceased. We may pay tribute to your beloved by doing good deeds in their name, go virtual for gatherings and tributes, or implement additional safety measures when meeting with those who share our loss, values or faith.
Five goals to keep in mind for the process of coping with loss and adapting to a new life:
- Connect to meaningful relationships.
- Allow for feelings when remembering the deceased and share stories of your loss.
- Restore well-being by planning and doing simple rewarding activities to balance the emotional pain.
- Renew a sense of meaning and purpose in the new life by turning activities into daily rituals or longer-term goals.
- If grieving becomes overwhelming or you get derailed, seek out additional support in the community, such as grief support services or mental health professionals.
Q: How can we be celebratory this holiday season, despite the social isolation required due to the pandemic?
Dr. Schmid: This 2020 has been infamously hard. So, what about celebrating love, peace and joy during this holiday season? It is okay to have many intense — even seemingly incompatible — emotions at this time of year. We can acknowledge the stress, fear, and hardship, grieve losses, and give ourselves permission to be celebratory.
Of course, each of us follows a different timeline. Let’s check in with each other and see how everyone is doing rather than assuming that everyone feels the same. Respect different perspectives and preferences for spending the holidays. It does not have to be an either/or scenario. Instead, we can allow for grieving and for positive feelings this holiday season. Voice your desires and explicitly plan for the holidays. Do you want to perform a ritual together virtually like singing, giving thanks, or saying a prayer, simply watch the kids open presents virtually, or do your own thing away from family this year?
This year, we may spend the holidays in a new way. We can do so while accepting this reality, staying flexible in this ever-changing world, and taking an angle of gratitude and compassion for each other.
Sabine Schmid, PhD, LP, is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Minnesota Medical School and a licensed psychologist with M Health Fairview. Her clinical interests include diagnosis and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), stress, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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