Coronavirus quarantining has many feeling lonelier than ever – Dr. Aslinia shares ways to cope
In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report that depression was on the rise globally. Evidence suggested the summer months may provide a necessary reprieve and a potential boost in happiness. Then disaster struck.
March marked the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the shuttering of nonessential business and mandatory social distancing. It has had a negative impact on people’s overall mental health. According to a new survey from University of Phoenix, 44 percent of U.S. adults are feeling lonelier than ever before and many fear they will suffer even more significant mental health problems as social distancing measures continue.
The survey results are not a surprise to Dr. Dean Aslinia, UOPX counseling program chair for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the President of the Arizona Counseling Association. He said research indicates that social distancing due to the pandemic is compounding feelings of loneliness.
“More people are expressing that they are feeling lonelier, regardless of how technology has allowed us to be more connected,” Dr. Aslinia said.
The UOPX survey of 1,055 found 71 percent of respondents are worried about their loved ones’ health, and 61 percent are concerned about their own health. If social distancing continues for longer than they expect, 84 percent indicated they believe their mental health will suffer. Of those numbers, 19 percent say their mental health would suffer greatly.
While social distancing has increased isolation, Dr. Aslinia said feeling isolated doesn’t inherently lead to loneliness. Many people are perfectly happy being alone. On the flip side, you can feel lonely even when you are surrounded by people.
Loneliness really has to do with how you perceive your relationships and yourself. It begins when you feel unsatisfied with your relationships, like you can’t share your most vulnerable self or when you feel like nobody has empathy for you, Dr. Aslinia said.
When this happens, it is common for irrational beliefs and self-defeating thoughts to creep in, then those thoughts can spiral into worries. From a cognitive behavioral perspective that is what causes this feeling of loneliness, Dr. Aslinia said. You have told yourself that you believe nobody understands you or nobody cares for you.
While loneliness is an emotion, not a disease, disorder or diagnosis, it can lead to more serious mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse or addiction. That’s why it’s important to try to overcome feelings of loneliness before they turn into something worse, Dr. Aslinia said.
The first thing he recommends is to determine whether you are feeling isolated or if you are feeling lonely. If you’re feeling isolated due to social distancing, do something to make you feel connected, such as joining online classes and taking “interactive” walks where you can maintain social distancing but still see people from a distance.
If feelings of isolation have triggered the more problematic feelings of loneliness, he suggested identifying the people you are closest to and reach out to cultivate a deeper connection.
It’s especially important to try to identify when you are having self-defeating thoughts before loneliness turns to depression. Symptoms of depression include eating too much or too little, feeling fatigued, sleeping too much or too little, experiencing more emotional reactivity, decrease in pleasure, or a decrease in cognitive function where you feel as if you are in a fog.
For those who are fearful their mental health will deteriorate as the social distancing measures continue, Dr. Aslinia suggested coping with breathing exercises and exploring mindfulness apps. Anxiety has its roots in a feeling of being out of control of a situation and catastrophizing the future, so the goal is to exert control over your thoughts.
“The anxiety and irrational thoughts are the brain’s reaction to loneliness. Your brain does not like to be left in the dark,” Dr. Aslinia said. “When it feels like it doesn’t have all the information about the future, it throws out the worst-case scenario to fill in those gaps to alert you to potential danger.”
One of the best ways to trick your brain into stopping these irrational thoughts is to come up with a plan. Look at your situation and figure out what you can control. For instance, if you’re worried you will be laid off due to the pandemic, do some skill-building, revamp your resume, reach out to your professional network and start looking for new opportunities.
The most important thing is to do something about your anxiety and loneliness. You can’t just hope it will disappear on its own, Dr. Aslinia said.
If you believe your loneliness has turned into depression or if the anxiety of the pandemic has become a problem, Dr. Aslinia recommends contacting a therapist offering telehealth visits, or schedule an appointment with your personal physician to explore options. If you are in crisis, there is always help at the National Helpline, 1-800-662-4357.