As COVID-19 numbers continue to soar, and ICU capacity drops below 15%, many counties have imposed tighter quarantine restrictions. Steps taken to slow the surge in infections are having an alarming impact on the number of Americans reporting feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
The pandemic is affecting young and old alike. Research recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates high levels of loneliness, with females ages 18-35 overrepresented in the group. Loneliness and social isolation are correlated with depression and anxiety, as well as a range of medical conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
Research by the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness (CESIL) reports that Medicare spends $6.7 billion annually as a result of medical and psychiatric disorders associated with social isolation. The morbidity and mortality rates associated with loneliness are comparable to obesity and cigarette smoking. Given the data, finding COVID-safe ways to stay connected with others is more important than ever.
“It’s important to not try to mitigate the risks of social isolation and loneliness with the risk of becoming infected with COVID,” said Peter Bayley, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the VA Palo Alto. “Finding creative ways to connect with others is pivotal.”
If you’re feeling lonely, following is a list of ways to foster connection.
Winters in California are mild. Going for a walk with a friend at a safe distance while wearing a mask poses minimal risk of viral transmission and is a strong antidote to feeling lonely. That outdoor walk will do more than boost your mood – it will boost your immunity. Research shows a relationship between vitamin D deficiency and the risk of infection from COVID.
Pods are not just for elementary schoolers. If you’re not familiar with the concept of “micro pods,” the premise is to find two to three people you are comfortable establishing a pod with. Ensure that all agree to adhere to the recommendation of staying 6 feet apart, and you can keep close friendships and your social support system alive and well during quarantine. Pods are not for everyone, and epidemiologists recommend caution for those at high risk from complications associated with a COVID infection.
Technology is an excellent way to remain connected with others, and leveraging innovative solutions that foster connection and social integration is one of the four goals of CESIL. The coalition recommends making time for regular phone or video calls with family and friends. If you’re in different time zones, or prefer to stay connected at a time convenient to you, text your messages along with any photos and videos. Reminders of pre-COVID times spent together are easy ways to keep everyone’s spirits up.
For many, the “winter blues” are a real concern. Paired with social isolation and loneliness as a consequence of COVID, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which typically affects approximately 5% of the U.S. population, is on the rise. Exercise is an effective treatment for SAD, but with quarantine measures in place, and in-person exercise classes not available, finding creative ways to incorporate exercise at home is a recommendation everyone should follow. There are many free online exercise classes, and Bayley, an expert on the benefits of yoga and meditation, suggests using technology to connect with others while engaging in activities that improve physical and mental well-being.
“Yoga is known to confer a host of benefits to physical and mental well-being, and accommodates for all levels of fitness and mobility,” Bayley said.
Research shows that doing things for others is an effective way to cope with loneliness and isolation, and an excellent way to relieve stress. Organizations such as VolunteerMatch offer a multitude of COVID-safe options to do good – everything from online tutoring and mentoring to participating in research and sharing your skills and passions via a virtual community event. Cooking a meal and dropping it off at a friend or neighbor’s door is an easy way to do good and feel good.
It’s fair to say that 2020 was challenging, and it’s likely 2021 may continue to be, but there are always reasons to be thankful. A growing body of research supports the benefits of gratitude in reducing feelings of loneliness, and stress, and improving well-being. Reflect on something you are grateful for, and if it’s someone dear to you, send them a message or call and let them know.
Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She uses the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.