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Commentary: Overcoming loneliness during the pandemic

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During the pandemic, “our sense of time has been compressed, forcing us to stay more present-centered,” write Drs. Steven and Deborah Hendlin, who offer recommendations on curbing loneliness.
(Los Angeles Times)

We are already moving into what medical experts believe will be a long winter of intensified COVID suffering, accompanied by increased fatalities. While being forced to spend more time at home in protecting ourselves, what can we do to cope with feelings of fatigue, loneliness and being over-whelmed by the sacrifices required in coping with risk? Specifically, how can we learn to turn feelings of loneliness into comfortably being alone?

Everyone has been inundated with articles touting the benefits of daily self-care. We are told to incorporate good nutrition, exercise, adequate rest and sleep, and exposure to sunlight. We are counseled to limit the use of mind-altering substances and the tendency to sooth ourselves with “comfort” foods. We are told to create new schedules, reduce expectations and become more mindful and self-reflective. And we are guided to connect with others digitally to help satisfy the need for social connection.

But with all this good advice, people of all ages continue to feel lonely. We believe one key reason for this is that they have not learned how to be comfortably alone. Being alone does not have to mean being lonely. So, let’s begin by defining the terms.

Being alone is the physical state of not having another person or animal in your company. There is plenty of research confirming that having a pet lessens the sting of being alone, especially for senior adults. But for our purposes, let’s define being alone as not having a pet in your company.

Loneliness is the psychological state of feeling sadness or distress at being physically alone. When we are lonely, we want contact with other people and are dissatisfied with being alone. We may still feel lonely even with people around us if we do not feel connected to them. So, it is not merely the physical act of being alone that triggers loneliness but the absence of satisfying connection. Because we are naturally social beings, even the most introverted people may at times feel lonely.

During the pandemic, we must remember that we are not just feeling cut off from other people — we are also feeling cut off from our normal outside world. We can’t as easily get away for new stimulation, to shop, explore a new place, enjoy nature or take a short driving vacation. We don’t feel safe making any long-term plans — for vacations, trips to family across the country or anything else. Our sense of time has been compressed, forcing us to stay more present-centered. In fact, one way to increase resilience, or the ability to adapt to changing conditions, is to increase our ability to enjoy the present.

If our anticipation of a trip in three months is part of what keeps us going, when that is stripped away because it can no longer predictably be planned, we lose the sense of freedom to mentally escape into the future. One of the mental tricks we use — fantasizing a pleasant future event to keep us going — no longer works. So, learning to be comfortably alone in the present becomes more important when escape from it becomes problematic.

If we want to overcome loneliness, here are some things we can do:

1. Understand that the feeling of loneliness originates in our thoughts. If we can identify and change our thoughts, we can change our feeling by substituting more positive, self-supportive thoughts. For example, thoughts like, “Being alone means no one likes me, and I’m all by myself in the world.” Or, “There is something wrong with me because I’m alone.” Or, “Being alone means I’m missing out on the joys of life that everyone else is experiencing.” These kinds of thoughts will reinforce isolation from others and may become fertile ground for obsessive rumination about not fitting in, leading to anxiety, loneliness and depression.

If you pay attention to your thoughts, you will notice how negative ones tend to repeat and create negative feelings. If you can work with the negative thoughts by neutralizing them with positive ones, you can change your feeling about being alone.

Our sense of acceptance of ourselves is the fundamental antidote to any lonely feelings. We must be able to accept ourselves deeply — including our shortcomings and inadequacies — everything we don’t like about ourselves. If we can do this, we will learn to enjoy our own company. Then, loneliness is less likely to be experienced. Of course, part of what psychotherapy and counseling have to offer is working with all the negativity, resentment and self-disgust created in the past, which arise when we really pay close attention to our thoughts and emotions.

2. As a part of a closer examination of your thoughts, take some time alone in a quiet place to do nothing but notice the ongoing flow of your thoughts. Notice which thoughts arise and pass away easily and which thoughts tend to stay with you. Notice that the more attention you give a thought, the tougher it is too allow it to pass away on its own. See if you can come to accept all of your thoughts without making judgments about them. If you can learn to do this, you will have a potent tool in enjoying your own company.

3. If you are able, surround yourself with people who are capable of feeling empathy, who want and know how to connect to you with their words and actions. When we feel listened to and understood, we feel connection. This helps break up the sense of sadness and loneliness. Try to avoid people who are fixated on the negative, tending to be critical of themselves and others.

4. Make a vow to temporarily give up planning for the future. This means the short-range future of a few months. If you wish to plan a year from now, make plans that can be changed as circumstances warrant. Examine what elements from future planning may be satisfying in the present. See if any of them may be incorporated into your present thinking.

5. Digitally connect with others. Use video programs like Zoom and chat messenger tools so that you may feel the connection with loved ones even if you can’t physically be with them. Keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of people have used online dating sites for a couple of decades now as a primary vehicle to connect with others. If people can form deep enough connections to end up marrying and corporations can have productive enough conferencing to make big decisions, it is not absolutely necessary to meet in person for deep non-physical connection to take place.

The writers are clinical psychologists in private practice in Newport Beach.

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