Overcoming loneliness while you’re social distancing during the holidays

Posted at 12:12 PM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-24 14:12:49-05

Social distancing is critical to containing COVID-19, but it may create negative emotions in some people – especially during the holidays. Here are some ideas about how to overcome those feelings during this time of face-to-face isolation or social distancing.

Reduce access to the three “A’s”: Alienation, Anger, and Unfounded Anxiety
“Many people are compensating for a lack of social contact by seeking out electronic connections (social media, FaceTime, Skype),” said Bryan Bushman, PhD a psychologist with Intermountain Healthcare’s McKay-Dee Behavioral Health Institute. “ That’s fine and important to do around the holidays, but remember to avoid sources of negativity found online or in the media.”

Dr. Bushman suggests before turning to social media, ask yourself, “Will what I read or see increase my sense of community and connection or will it increase my sense of alienation, anger, or anxiety?”

Panic spreads faster than COVID-19, and panic thrives in an atmosphere of anxiety, hostility, and isolation. “We already have isolation. Do we really need to add anxiety or hostility?” said Dr. Bushman. “Let’s not unintentionally make things worse by alienating each other – no matter how right we believe our anger or anxiety is. A shared sense of community will get us through.”

Seek out healthy activities and traditions
Dr. Bushman suggests finding your flow by rediscovering family traditions like building gingerbread houses, driving to see holiday lights, and decorating for the holidays. And instead of only watching movies or doing other passive/sedentary activities, start an activity you’ve been putting off. “It’s best to start off small and focus only on goals you can directly control or influence,” said Dr. Bushman. “Moderate exercise, like going for a walk in the snow, is a great way to help yourself feel productive and healthy.”

Safely connect with others
Experts say expressing gratitude to someone through an email, letter, social media, or electronically will help keep you connected and help avoid loneliness for you and others. “As you find new ways to connect, no matter what you decide to do, listen to others with compassion and realize you don’t have to always know the ‘right’ thing to say – you only have to know the right way to listen,” said Dr. Bushman. “People remember little of what you actually say anyway; they mainly remember how they felt when you took the time to connect.”

According to researcher Daniel Seigel, people need to “feel felt” during times of crisis. Look for safe ways to provide this gift to each other.

Participate in activities that increase your sense of “awe”
Awe is not joy or happiness. According to researcher and psychologist Dacher Keltner, awe is a mental state where your sense of self disappears, and you feel a shift – large or small in perspective. “Awe makes us feel small but in a good way because it humbly opens us to new possibilities or perspectives,” said Dr. Bushman. “Thus, activities that increase your sense of awe are a wonderful antidote to loneliness.”

Keltner and his colleagues surveyed over 2,600 people in 26 countries and found some common sources of awe across these cultures. Those sources are listed here in the order in which they were mentioned by study participants:

  • People: Reflecting on the birth of a child, thinking about another person’s kindness or virtues, intentionally finding good news stories that emphasize people’s courage and compassion.
  • Nature: Take a walk in a place that makes you feel humble an open. Look at pictures of awe-inspiring landscapes or star systems that help you see a bigger picture of the world or universe.
  • Spiritual/Religious practice: Mediate. Pray. Read from spiritual texts. Participate safely in activities that give you a sense of community and purpose.
  • Art/music: View great works of art. Listen to holiday music from composers who inspire you. Allow yourself to explore other genres/images that lift you up.
  • Ideas: Read the works of Emerson, Gandhi, or another personal hero. You can be “awe-struck” when you contemplate grand ideas or theories that help you shift into big-picture thinking (vs small-picture or just-me thinking).

Research findings have demonstrated that people who regularly and intentionally fill their lives with awe experience less loneliness, less body inflammation, less entitlement, and more pro-social behaviors, like humility and helping.

Make time to practice things that will enhance your mental health
“Schedule time to do the recommendations listed here and participate in them frequently,” said Dr. Bushman. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking these recommendations will magically happen on their own, and don’t wait for yourself to be in the mood to do them. Do them anyway.”

Dr. Bushman also recommends practicing these recommendations with mindfulness and without judgment. “Although it’s sometimes difficult, do your best to stay in the present. Many people who are lonely participate in these activities in body only. Instead, mentally throw yourself fully into the activity in a way that helps it penetrate and resonate."

However, if loneliness leads you to symptoms of depression or thoughts of self-harm, reach out to a certified counselor or crisis hotline. People are available to help. Dr. Bushman said, although it may sound trite, it’s important to remember that – although you may feel alone – none of us are experiencing COVID-19 alone.

If you are someone you care about feel overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety – or feel like you want to harm yourself or others – call 911 or:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
  • COVID-19 Emotional Health Relief Hotline 833-442-2211
  • Or text TalkWithUs to 66746 (TTY 1-800-846-8517)