The year 2020 has shined a light on many truths — one of which, Dr. Christina Iglesia, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the #therapyiscool mental health action campaign, tells TZR in an email, is that people actually do need other people. "Humans are social creatures and therefore survive through relationships, community, and/or support," she says. "When physical distance is required as it has been during the pandemic, people are beginning to understand the importance of human connection." In other words, many people have been left dealing with feelings of loneliness — and wondering what, exactly, there is to do about it, given the long-term lack of physical and social contact.
Before diving into solutions, though, it's important to first understand what loneliness is, who it affects, and how it can impact your health.
According to Dr. Iglesia, you can actually feel lonely whether or not you're physically without others. "Loneliness is often a feeling we experience when we are without understanding or support, whether that be in a crowded room or physically on our own."
Neuroscientist and author of best-selling book The Source, Dr. Tara Swart, takes this explanation a step further. "Loneliness is related to bonding hormone, oxytocin, which is released during child birth, breast feeding, falling in love, the connection between a newborn baby and parents, and is only really transmitted between physical interaction and eye contact." So, she continues, a lack of physically connected social contact means oxytocin levels will be low, leading to feelings of loneliness.
And while Dr. Swart says loneliness is typically associated with people who are older, it's not just those generations who are experiencing a magnification of these feelings. "There was actually a study that came out before the pandemic hit that millennials are one of the loneliest generations," she says, explaining that confinement has hit them especially hard as their mental wellbeing is very tied to their social lives, as well as because they're used to interacting with many people in-person on any given day. "This extreme reduction in the number of social interactions has largely contributed to huge feelings of loneliness."
So what does this mean in terms of your health? According to Dr. Swart, when we're lonely, our levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) go up and what she calls our DOSE hormones (i.e. dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, which come from our mood, feeling good, reward, bonding) are reduced. This can lead to "sleep disturbance, weight gain, dry skin, low mood, change in appetite, fatigue, lack of motivation, and reduced resilience both mentally and physically," she continues.
There are steps you can take to help prevent and combat these effects, however. If you've been experiencing feelings of loneliness, read on for tips from Dr. Swart and Dr. Iglesia to help you feel more connected during this isolating time.
How To Deal With Loneliness During COVID-19: Pay Attention To How You're Using Technology
You may be wondering if all those Zoom happy hours and family gatherings can actually help with loneliness, and according to Dr. Iglesia, the answer is yes. "I do believe that technology is an effective medium to combat feelings of loneliness," she says. "Whether it is through text messages, FaceTime calls, or social media platforms, technology can bridge the gap between phone calls to in-person gatherings."
Dr. Swart does note, though, that seeing people via video call has a very different effect on the brain than seeing people in person. "When you have direct eye contact with someone, your oxytocin or 'love hormone' level goes up," she says. "When you’re on a video call you may think you’re making eye contact with someone when you’re looking directly at them, but they will not see that — technically, you have to make direct eye contact into the camera which is uncomfortable and makes it harder to engage."
That said, Dr. Swart goes on to explain that virtual hangouts are better than not seeing anyone at all. Her recommendation for making them more effective? Switching up your modes of communication for different purposes so as not to associate your chats with loved ones with work, "i.e. using Zoom for work but FaceTime for chatting with friends," she says. "I also go as far as to sit in one spot of my home for work and either sit in a different location to speak with friends and family or even more try to go for a walk while I’m chatting with them. I feel this sends a signal to your brain that this is work or this is life."
How To Deal With Loneliness During COVID-19: Get Creative With Virtual Hangouts
Dr. Iglesia and Dr. Swart also both agree that the benefits of technology can be maximized by getting creative with it. "What I would highly suggest is to put together activities to do with your friends virtually, even if it’s something as small as trying on new purchases together or doing a virtual clothing swap," says Dr. Swart. "These activities can make you feel like you’re actually together in-person when you can’t be."
How To Deal With Loneliness During COVID-19: Prioritize Social Contact & Physical Touch
Dr. Swart stresses the importance of being proactive about your social contact during this time and recommends calling a friend or family member to safely meet up with them if it's possible.
And again, if it's safe, she says to get physical affection through a hug, kiss, or even just a handshake. If it's not, though, she adds that you should still practice keeping good eye contact with those you interact with "as that can also aid in feeling less lonely."
And if it's not safe or possible to physically interact with someone else at all? Practice massage, self-massage, moisturizing your body, or reflexology, continues Dr. Swart — "anything that touches your skin." Additionally, she says, immersing yourself in warm water, such as in a bath or through swimming, can release oxytocin, "the bonding hormone we experience when we receive physical affection."
How To Deal With Loneliness During COVID-19: Take Stock Of Your Feelings
According to Dr. Iglesia, the best thing one can do to minimize feelings of loneliness is acknowledge when they arise. "By paying attention to our mental and emotional state, we then in turn can take appropriate action if we notice a decline in our overall well being," she says. "Loneliness can be alleviated by uncovering what makes us feel connected and dedicating time to cultivating these areas in our lives."
Dr. Swart also recommends expressing your feelings if you are experiencing loneliness, specifically through journaling, which she says is a good way to get out your thoughts. Again, as Dr. Iglesia said, acknowledgement of your emotions is crucial, so writing them down can be the first step to realizing them yourself — then, you'll be more equipped to decide what measures to take next.