“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.” ~ Robin Williams
I think, for some of us, when COVID restrictions began to happen, we were almost thankful for the break. Not having to go into work all the time, not having to deal with people and their expectations… it seemed like a positive. As this stretches into a longer and longer period of time, it doesn’t feel so great anymore. Let’s face it… there’s a reason they use solitary confinement as a punishment! We are inherently social people.
But it’s about more than just being around other people. We need to feel a loving connection. There are times we can be somewhere, surrounded by others, and still feel completely alone. The work of Harry Harlow, who worked with baby monkeys in the 1950s and 60s, is an example (Smuts, B., 2003, New York Times). Harlow did experiments to challenge the existing idea at the time that all a child needed to be attached to its mom was food and shelter. When the baby monkey had the option of choosing between a wire monkey that offered food and a cloth mother that didn’t, the monkey would choose the cloth mother. AND, interestingly enough, when they experienced connection and were separated from it, they lost interest in interacting at all and struggled to even take care of themselves.
Now I’m not saying the fix for loneliness is to go out and find a cloth monkey. That’s not it. The point is, we look for meaningful interactions because our hearts are hurting and being alone is actually, from an evolutionary perspective, very scary. So what is a meaningful interaction? Well, that often depends on the person. From my perspective, a meaningful connection is one where we feel heard, cared for, safe… like we matter. It’s where the person we are interacting with shows connection to us by engaging with tone of voice and questions; physical responses like mimicking our stances, moving or leaning in, and reaching out; and emotional responses like tearing up when we are crying; laughing with us; or being angry or frustrated with us. It’s the type of connection that says, “I see you. I get you. You’re cool to me.”
I can almost hear the frustration now. “Ok, great Kim. But in case you missed it, we’re stuck in our ‘bubbles’ which some of us don't even have, and I'm frustrated, and nervous because we don’t know when this is all supposed to end. And freaking Christmas is coming. Christmas! What am I supposed to do? Zoom in for Christmas?”
Well… yeah. That is one of many options of coping with loneliness right now. We are lucky in a way that this is happening in an era where the technology around us lets us FaceTime, Zoom, Messenger Video et cetera with the people we miss the most. Other options mentioned by sites like Verywellmind and the Canadian Mental Health Association are distraction, keeping a schedule, staying active, doing something meaningful like learning something new or showing compassion to someone else who is struggling, being kinder to yourself by doing things that have always brought comfort, or creating something by finishing a project you’ve been putting off or starting a new hobby. And for Pete's sake (whoever he is), go outside! You can. You just need to socially distance and wear a mask! So go for a walk with a friend, even of the four legged variety (connection can be shared with animals too).
In my experience, it’s important to pair whatever strategy you are trying to use with the symptom that's actually bugging you or it won’t provide the relief you’re hoping for. For example, if I can’t shut off my brain, then it’s more effective to use distraction like learning piano or sudoku because it uses my brain in a different way than trying to use a body strategy like taking a bath. Another example is if my chest feels tight from anxiety, I can certainly try distraction, but it might be more effective to drink some water or do some stretching, bouncing, or dancing (listening to music is one of the easiest ways to connect to your emotion and body centres).
But really, it will come down to understanding what you are needing in that moment. And if you are feeling lost and lonely, be honest about it and try to connect with someone in anyway you can… it sounds strange, but try to remember you are not alone in your lonely. And I’m already sending a virtual hug your way.
Kim Long, MC, CCC, R. Psych (4449, Alberta)
Dochas Psychological Services, Inc.
301, 131 First Avenue, Spruce Grove, AB
780-446-0300 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Canadian Mental Health Association: British Columbia Division, (n.d.), Coping with Loneliness. Canadian Mental Health Association. https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/coping-with-loneliness Cuncic, A. (2020, March 27). How to cope with loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. Verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-cope-with-loneliness-during-coronavirus-4799661 Smuts, B. (2003, February 2). No more wire mothers, ever. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/02/books/no-more-wire-mothers-ever.html