Dear Mentor: Coronavirus has intensified my loneliness...

Dear Mentor,

Dear Mentor, I feel like when I started my graduate program, I left all my friends and free time behind. But now with coronavirus, I don't even see my students anymore. I'm lonely! What do I do? 


from Susan Mettes, an opinion researcher writing a book on loneliness

You've probably heard that the United States is experiencing loneliness in unprecedented proportions, and it seems to be rising steeply, according to research by Cigna. Not only that, but you’re in an environment with a concentrated group of one of the U.S.’s loneliest demographic categories: young adults. Other factors, like whether you’re isolated on a regular basis, rather than collaborating in a collegial environment, may mean that your workplace is lonelier than the average. 

And now, we’re being called on to put physical distance between ourselves and anyone outside of our household to stop the spread of COVID-19.

No wonder you’re feeling lonely and discouraged! But here’s some encouragement: no one has to be chronically lonely, not in your circumstances, not in any others. 

The easiest way to ease loneliness is, of course, to interact face-to-face with friends. Given that these interactions currently have to be awkwardly far apart shouldn’t stop you from engaging, if it’s safe to do so in your community. Still, as the crisis winds up, fewer and fewer of us will have the chance to shout at our neighbors across the fence or pull chairs up with friends in a big, sparse circle.  

So, here are five other guidelines that might help if you really have to hole up for now, and as you fight loneliness in the long run:

First, use technology wisely, but use it.

Sitting at home and scrolling through Instagram may give you a sense of solidarity with others in the same soup. That can be good. But research shows that social media can contribute to, rather than ease, all sorts of dissatisfaction. It can go the other way, too — and that might mean it’s a valuable tool for you during social distancing. Try shifting the time you spend on social media from scrolling to interacting, and take a break from platforms that make you feel more left out. 

Keep in mind also that there’s a huge range of technologies today that can get us pretty close to in-person interactions. Texting can be wonderful, but it is far from interactions at a normal conversational pace with each person’s individuality coming through. (Of course, some people have plenty of individuality in their messaging). Phone calls get you closer, and video calls closer still. When you’re lonely, try to get as close to in-person time with a friend or loved one as you can.

Second, re-establish or strengthen relationships with people who give you a sense of belonging.

These will be relationships with history, shared experiences, and mutual care and concern. If you are feeling lonely, take it as a sign you need to reach out and show you care.

Do you love your dad but rely on a few sightings a year for your quality time with him? Try changing it up and calling him when your mom isn’t on the line. Round up college friends for a Skype call. See if you can reach your grandparents on the phone. 

And don’t let guilt over your poor communication in the last few years keep you from the company of people you enjoy. 

This might be a difficult time to do so, but cultivate relationships with people you like so that they, too, can become the sort of long-term friends you miss when social distancing.

And if you don't hear back, use a hermeneutic of grace. Some people's lives are much crazier because of social distancing. Some people don't look at their accounts very often. Some people are not very good with technology. There are many good reasons that have nothing to do with you that could keep someone else from responding to your contact. So, try to be encouraged by those who do respond without being discouraged by those who don’t.

Third, do what gives you (and the rest of humanity) maximum perspective and resilience.

Yes, that means exercise. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean running on a treadmill. You can foxtrot by yourself or do push-ups, for example. The point is not about your appearance or about moral perfection; it’s that being human means our thought life is linked to our physical movement.

Other physical things also seem to solve a myriad of problems. Get outside. Go to bed at a decent hour, regularly, at a time that allows you to get seven to nine hours of sleep. (Consider that if you’re watching shows instead of sleeping, you will soon run out of worthwhile shows). Eat a healthy diet. 

No one is asking you to become an Ironman triathlete in order to solve your loneliness. However, there are clear indications that doing the things your body needs also will help you process and perceive your life in a way that's helpful to you. 

Fourth, assess where your sense of security comes from.

Insecurity and loneliness are linked. If you know you’re insecure, or if you see a lot of your interactions with others as failures or rejections, this may be a good time to gain a new perspective — not a fake perspective. Very little of other people’s actions has to do with you. They likely don’t even notice things you’re keenly aware of. All those realizations can give us the ability to be self-forgetfully friendly — and less lonely.

But also consider what role your faith plays. Do you know that God loves you like a parent loves a child? He won’t reject you. He hasn’t rejected you. And if you find you have trouble being comforted in that relationship, this is a great time to explore resources, to ask the advice of others who do seem secure, and to start exploring — perhaps with the help of a counselor — why your insecurity hasn’t been quenched by your successes and relationships so far. 

Finally, commit yourself to a process.

Like getting fit, getting un-lonely takes time and maintenance. But don't be intimidated! Pretty much all of us humans like friendship and perspective. The hard part is really just the energy it takes to do things differently. Once the ball is rolling (that is, once you establish habits and other people reach back to you as you reach out to them), even that will get easier. 

You will not likely live the rest of your life without a day of loneliness. But you should start experiencing more and longer breaks from it. And, you might have noticed, you’ll have eased others’ loneliness in the process.

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