By now hundreds of articles have been written about the people quarantined at home with the stressors of spouses, partners, kids or roommates. But what about those who may seemingly have been forgotten—people who live alone and for whom the stay-at-home orders and more limited activity have created an even more significant void—of connectedness and community?
Pressures have risen for many—sharing space, entertaining children and cooking more meals than ever. But for some, the pressure has been more of a vacuum. My friend Noah says at first, the quarantine was gut-wrenching. His home sanctuary was now a cell of solitude. The cocoon he had curated for himself became very limiting without opportunities to get out, socialize or balance with time away from his nest. Even as the quarantine eases, the relative isolation can still be pressing.
Distress Is Increasing
Study after study reinforces mental health distress brought on by the coronavirus—for everyone.
- Johns Hopkins University research found a three-fold increase in people reporting psychological distress. The most significant troubles were in those with lower income, Hispanics, those ages 18-29 and people 55-plus. Most people reported feeling upset because of conditions created by social distancing, fear of contracting the disease, economic concerns, unemployment and reduced access to mental health services.
- Another study by the University of Connecticut found 97% of people were experiencing stress based on the pandemic. They discovered people had stress related to the virus itself, changes in daily routines and financial or job-security concerns. Of these, the financial concerns were greatest.
- A sweeping study of 46,000 people ages 16-99 across 237 countries, carried out by the universities of Exeter, Manchester and Brunel, found loneliness is most significant and most common among those in individualistic societies (compared with those who are more collectivist) and most common among younger age groups, particularly men.
All of these studies looked at the effects of the coronavirus on mental health and loneliness. However, another research effort looked at the opposite relationship. The University of Rome found social isolation was correlated with contracting the coronavirus. Those regions with higher numbers of people living away from family members had greater numbers of cases presumably because they didn’t have the proximity and supports of those important relationships.
The research is clear. The conditions brought about by the virus are stressing us out and social isolation is correlated with contracting the disease. These are hard times indeed—and they are perhaps more challenging for those who live alone.
Avoiding Loneliness When You Live Alone
For many stressors, it’s arguably easier to change circumstances and take some control over the situation. But the virus presents a unique challenge in that it is impossible to escape—and this is especially true when your own circumstance is more isloated. Here are a few tips for keeping loneliness at bay when you live alone:
Stay connected. When you live alone, connections won’t be automatic. Be intentional about staying in touch. Go out of your way to communicate using technology, shouting across the street to your neighbor or chatting with another resident in the hallway of your condo. You may need to schedule your interactions with friends more than you did before since you’re not getting social time in the office or by going out with friends. Plan for your time with your people.
Embrace teamwork. For many who live alone, work is an important outlet for contribution, and it is also an especially-critical gateway for relationships. The connections through work are an important way that work feels rewarding. With social distancing and work-from-home circumstances, the social connections which provide a reward for work may be less possible, and work may feel less fulfilling. Be intentional about spending (virtual) time with teammates and volunteering for projects or tasks which will put you in close touch with colleagues.
Be selective. My friend Danica who lives alone, said she has started to be more selective about the people with whom she spends time, and this has been quite rewarding. Because all her social outlets require additional effort, she has reflected on whom she enjoys most—and in contrast, the friends who are not as positive to be around. Pre-pandemic, it was easier to see everyone, so she didn’t have to be as choosy. But now she says her relationships have improved overall because she’s spending time with the people that add the most to her life.
Be intentional about your home. Even with so much out of your hands, control what you can. Make your home experience as positive as possible. Perhaps that means moving furniture so it’s more conducive to your work or keeping the blinds open to get more sunlight. Your home is your territory and only you will alter it, so make it all you can.
Establish a routine that includes people. Having a sense of pattern and repetition in life can create a sense of security during times of ambiguity. My friend Adam says regular activities have been extraordinarily helpful in creating comfort and fighting loneliness. He gets together with a neighbor for a walk once a week and he has established a small community of co-workers who ride stationary bikes together virtually every Friday morning.
Don’t underestimate the power of a pet. Shortly after the start of the pandemic, news stories celebrated the empty animal shelters from California to Michigan and Texas to New Jersey. Pets can offer a wonderful boost in happiness, evidenced by a new study by Banfield Pet Hospitals. They found 45% of respondents reported increased happiness based on having a pet in their household, and 39% reported their pet helped lower their anxiety. 20% even said they preferred their pets to their coworkers while they were working from home. Of course pets aren’t for everyone, but if you’re not opposed, consider a pet to share your space and your life.
Engage in new ways. If you can’t be with others, another approach is to seek solace in the familiar. According to a study by the State University of New York, certain activities can satisfy the need to be with people because they are familiar and reinforce feelings of being with old friends. Binge-watching your favorite shows, listening to your favorite music or playing a classic game may be surprisingly reassuring.
Be good company. In addition to the outward-looking ways to cope, be sure to also look within. Appreciate time with yourself. Seek to learn new things, start a hobby or a read great books. As Mark Twain said, “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.” Another saying goes, “Where ever you go, there you are.” Strive to be grateful for the time you get to spend with yourself.
Make good choices. Living alone can create the conditions for bad habits to flourish. Spending too much time gaming or comfort-eating may flourish without anyone at home to foster accountability. On the other hand, living along without the distractions that come from homes packed with people can provide space for personal assessment as well. Embrace the opportunity to improve. Perhaps you weren’t eating as healthfully as you could have been, or perhaps you weren’t exercising as much as you wanted. The increased time alone may create occasions to develop your healthy cooking skills or your new online exercise regimen. Take self-improvement to new levels.
Focus on the present—and the future. Rather than swirling with anxieties about the uncertainty of the coming weeks and months, stay focused on the present. At the same time, realize optimism is good for you (a Boston University study found those who were optimistic were healthier and lived longer) and cultivate a sense for a positive future. Remind yourself this will pass and that bright skies will be on the horizon—eventually.
All in all, living alone can be wonderful. But it’s likely more stressful through the pandemic because of the increased social isolation. Be intentional about staying connected, embrace teamwork and be selective about those with whom you spend your time. Establish routines, consider getting a pet and find the familiar. Be purposeful about your home and make good choices about your personal habits. Most of all, manage your worries and cultivate a sense of optimism. The pandemic is tough and social isolation is even tougher, but we will get through it—individually and collectively.