What are mental health professionals doing to make them feel less alone?
Ask people to name a basic emotion they felt during the coronavirus pandemic and many will respond: ‘Loneliness’.
No one knows this better than those involved in mental health, who both deal with clients expressing this emotion and experience it themselves.
According to American Psychological Association, loneliness is defined as the cognitive discomfort or uneasiness of being or perceiving oneself as being alone – or the feeling of a mismatch between an individual’s desired and actual social relationships.
Loneliness is a state of mind; it is not the same as being alone. “You can often tell the difference between the two by wondering if you’re not embarrassed by not having anyone around you, or by the quality of the social connections you have with the people around you”, Explain Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the Foundation for Art and Healing, a Brookline, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that promotes art as a vehicle for health and happiness.
The good news, psychologists say, is that there are many tools anyone can use to avoid this unwanted feeling or allow it to pass quickly, rather than wallowing in it.
Of course, some of these tools have been limited in the past year or so due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but others were not. A review of interventions for loneliness Posted in PLoS A in February 2021 found that 12 interventions could still be performed safely according to social distancing guidelines – including the use of video and phones and being with animals – although some two dozen more required physical contact and did not could not.
Now that many of us are socializing more, it’s tempting to think that we’ll never feel alone again. But experts say loneliness strikes almost everyone at least once in a while.
That’s why we asked mental health experts to share some of the techniques they personally use when they feel the loneliness virus is starting to bite them. Here are their tips.
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1. Go out into nature
Involvement in a community garden in his neighborhood makes a huge difference for Judith Gulko, PhD, psychologist in private practice in Coral Springs, Florida.
âBeing in a beautiful natural oasis is really useful for feeling grounded and for my spirit. Even during the pandemic, I could go there and see the greenery and vegetables and even other people while maintaining a safe distance, âshe says.
Nature, whether it’s a huge forest or a single tree, is known to help us feel calm and connected to something beyond ourselves that banishes feelings of loneliness. When researchers measured stress hormone levels in people in nature or in an indoor gym, people living in natural environments had much lower stress levels because reported in May 2018 in Behavioral sciences.
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2. Help another person in some way
Shari botwin, psychotherapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of Thrive after trauma, says she has personally struggled with loneliness most of her life. âA few days after the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I noticed that my feelings of isolation and low self-esteem were triggered. Knowing that I had to stay physically distant was unbearable at first, but rather than sit still in my fears, I came up with a plan of action, âshe says.
Part of the plan: to be useful.
âFor years, I have advocated for survivors of trauma and abuse, so in addition to providing teletherapy to my clients, I have also trained and co-hosted workshops, webinars and Instagram Live events on the subject. Being able to reach out to other people struggling with isolation gives me a purpose, âshe says.
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3. Take time for the arts
Dr Nobel is a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Foundation for Art & Healing promotes art as a vehicle for health and happiness with a program she calls the UnLonely Project.
Unsurprisingly, Nobel himself turns to art to reduce his own loneliness. âDuring the pandemic, I made space for the arts as a useful activity, because creative intentionality offers tangible benefits,â he says.
He focused on poetry and music. âI love both doing and reading poems,â he says, noting that when you read someone else’s work, you feel like they’re there with you.
Nobel found himself feeling the music more intensely, possibly because it didn’t compete with his need to catch the next flight or have a reunion as usual, he says. âListening to music became a moment of reflection, memory, imagination and surprisingly connected feeling, even when I was physically alone,â he says.
4. Reach out for no reason
It’s easy to believe that you need a reason to call or text someone, but Nobel says anything can be the seed of a connection. And the more you reach out to those close to you who are not physically close to you, the more you will hear them.
“I often take pictures on my phone of things that grab my attention and send them to friends as a way to share the moment and start a conversation,” he says, likening it to a more personal version of a Instagram post.
âThe electronic devices we take with us can be connection tools, especially when used intentionally to share moments and your experience in an authentic, real-time manner,â he says.
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5. Remember this is temporary
We all go through times when we feel lonely, but it’s helpful to remember that these times are usually fleeting, advises Botwin.
âSometimes when I miss hugging my friends or spending time socially with people I love, I imagine when we meet again. It reminds me that circumstances are temporary and the people I love. I appreciate haven’t left my life, âshe said.