It happens to the best of us.
Whether you’re riding out the coronavirus pandemic with roommates, family members, pets, or you’re by yourself, you’ve probably experienced feeling lonely at some point over the last few months. The truth is that loneliness doesn’t just crop up when you’re alone; many of us experience it even when we’re scheduling virtual hangs or gathering around the table for a family dinner.
Even if you’re happily quarantining with people you adore, you might miss certain types of interactions or even relationships. There’s a specific kind of loneliness that comes from being unable to brunch with your best friends. Or you might miss the small daily interactions with your regular barista. Though you’re probably doing your best to take these new developments in stride, the pandemic has likely changed your life in major ways. Most of us have gone from a reality where we can easily be around friends, family, coworkers (even strangers on crowded subways or in stores), and we’ve transitioned to a far more insular existence. Suddenly, travel is limited and impromptu hangouts are literally unsafe. And, as if the pandemic isn’t isolating enough, upcoming elections, a collapsing economy, a postal service in peril, and relentless anti-Black violence brings many of us face-to-face with existential loneliness. In short: Loneliness is understandable no matter your circumstances, and it sometimes feels like there aren’t enough socially distanced park hangs or video calls to make up the difference.
So what should you do when you’re feeling lonely? Below, we’ve asked Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and friendship expert to share some tips to help us manage loneliness, and we’ve tapped Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, hosts of the popular podcast about long-distance friendship, Call Your Girlfriend, and authors of Big Friendship to share some of their best advice for dealing with the kind of loneliness that comes when we miss our favorite people.
1. Recognize how loneliness can cloud your judgment.
“A state of loneliness actually alters how we perceive the world,” Franco tells SELF. As a result, it can be harder to push yourself out of feeling lonely. “We perceive threats and slights where they may not be,” Franco explains. “And we perceive that we're more likely to be rejected than we are.” This could be why, in a meta-analysis that looked at 20 different clinical trials designed to combat loneliness, researchers found that interventions that addressed false perceptions and negative thoughts worked best, the American Psychological Association (APA) says. So, while your loneliness is absolutely valid, it’s important to remember your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and observations about relationships and things going on around you might be impacted by the foggy glasses of loneliness right now.
2. Plan for loneliness before you begin to feel lonely.
If you find you’re more critical or negative than usual, and you can’t pinpoint why, Franco says this might be a sign that you’re at the very beginning stages of loneliness. Additionally, you can look at your past experiences to figure out when you tend to feel a little less comfortable with your alone time. If you’re good at “being alone,” you might not notice loneliness until you feel it in a major way. Still, Franco says that you should try to anticipate your loneliness. “You need to reach out to people before you get lonely,” Franco says. If weekends are hardest for you, make a plan to touch base with someone ahead of time. Franco also says that planning ahead can help you reframe loneliness. “When we feel like we're in control of our alone time, or using it productively, we can access solitude instead of loneliness,” Franco explains. “So seeing your time alone as an opportunity to make art, or music, or repairs around the house, or to learn something new—all those things can make alone time enjoyable rather than distressing.”
3. Make sure binge-watching isn't your only source of comfort.
Television has a way of making us feel less alone, right? But, Franco says, we might be digging ourselves into a deeper sense of isolation, especially if watching TV and movies is the only thing we rely on to make us feel like we have company. “TV makes us feel like we have pseudo interactions, where it feels like we have just enough [connection] to keep the pot from boiling over. But the pot is boiling, and we're not registering it,” Franco says. Additionally, escaping into a good binge-watch or playing on your phone might feel good in the moment, but those activities don’t give you the lasting buzz of genuine human connection, Franco explains. It’s not that you should stop watching TV altogether—spending time with a favorite show or gripping movie has been just what the doctor ordered for many, many nights of this pandemic. It’s just that when it’s all you’re doing, the pseudo interactions of TV might make you feel more isolated.
“Being more active, like even just getting out of your house, might make you feel better,” Franco says. The key, she says, is “not letting your loneliness turn you into a puddle on the couch.” So consider going for a walk, even if you’re alone. During a pandemic, where we don’t get the added benefit of regular small talk, seeing people in a park or exchanging masked eye contact with your neighbor can help you feel less alone.
4. Admit it when you’re over Zoom and FaceTime.
“Admitting that I am struggling with Zoom fatigue, or just keeping in touch, has been a relief because I've found out I am not the only one,” Sow tells SELF. “That in itself is a small victory.” If you’re over video chats, it’s not your fault. Franco says that video conferencing—though wonderful—isn’t a perfect substitute for in-person interactions. “[We may] project the fatigue that Zoom foists upon us onto people we're interacting with,“ Franco says. Think about it: Between pesky video delays, low battery notifications, and the tendency to stare at your own face, it’s almost natural to leave calls feeling depleted and a bit disconnected. “Difficulties in the medium spill over and affect our feelings of closeness and comfort with whoever we interact with,” Franco says. There’s also the notion that, while focusing on the connection we’re able to have, we also have to acknowledge the closeness and connection we’ve lost.
Additionally, large Zoom chats don’t have the same ebb and flow of IRL conversations, which can make it harder for you to be yourself. Franco explains that when you find yourself in situations where you can’t be yourself, you might experience loneliness (even though you’re with people). “I think that's how you end up being lonely in a crowded room. It's because you don't feel that the environment is safe for you to express yourself.” If you start to notice that video calls are making you feel less connected, not more, consider being honest about that and taking a break.
5. Make a practice of reaching out to people when you think of them.
It can seem like connecting via technology isn’t the same, but while you mourn your old ways of interacting with loved ones, you can still try new ones and make sure that you’re not actively creating more distance. “Reaching out when you think about a friend is so crucial,” Sow says. So, if someone pops into your mind, reach out, whether by phone, text, audio message, Marco Polo, DM, or carrier pigeon. Or, better yet, set up some form of low-stakes daily interaction—exchange a daily meme with someone you love, or turn gratitude journaling on its head by starting a “reasons to smile” text thread with someone close to you. Telling someone just one thing that made you smile during the day, and getting a slice of someone else’s gratitude might be the pick-me-up you didn’t know you needed. “No matter what the content of the message, the small, daily communications from my friends mean so much lately,” Friedman tells SELF. “Seeing a friend's name pop up in my texts just to say hello definitely dulls the longing a little bit.”
6. And reach out to people in new ways.
While every ounce of quality time is important, both Sow and Friedman have embraced other forms of communication during the pandemic. “When I'm missing a friend, and it's not appropriate to call (say, it's late at night and they're in a different time zone), I send them a little postcard or a letter,” Friedman says. “Who doesn't love opening their mailbox and finding actual mail instead of bills,” Sow adds. The time you spend writing and thinking about someone you love (and imagining their happiness when they get mail) might help you feel less lonely. You can also ask a few friends to grace you with the occasional letter, postcard, or spontaneous phone call as well.
7. Have a literal conversation with yourself about loneliness.
Reaching out to other people is a key part of managing loneliness, but since we know that feeling lonely can mess with how we see the world, it might be helpful to have a little chat with yourself as well. Franco suggests talking to yourself in the third person to gain a little clear-mindedness. You might talk out loud about why you’re lonely and why you’re feeling reluctant to reach out to friends and family. Hearing yourself say things like “everyone is too busy for me” or “everyone has their own problems to deal with” might help you figure out whether or not your “lonely brain” is playing tricks on you, Franco says. “It's a way to separate ourselves from the cloud that happens in our brains,” she explains. After talking things over with yourself, you might discover that it is worth it to reach out for one more video chat with your best friends, after all.
8. Tell your friends and family you miss them.
If you don’t want to burden your loved ones with your emotions, or you think that telling them you miss them might make a bad situation even worse, it might be worth it to come clean about what you’re feeling. Keeping it honest might help you feel more connected. Missing friends is “something I talk about frequently with the very friends I'm missing,“ Friedman says. Doing this could help you realize you’re not alone.
9. Have vulnerable conversations more often.
Along with not hiding the fact that you’re lonely, there are other ways to make sure that you’re having meaningful conversations during this time. “Authenticity is the antidote to loneliness,” Franco says. So, if you’re feeling a bit low, Franco suggests calling a friend and revealing yourself—talk about difficulties, struggles, or anything else you’ve been keeping inside as of late. Doing this helps you remember that you’re connected even if you’re spending way more time alone.
10. Know that you’re allowed to seek professional support.
Loneliness is a totally normal response to being alone, and there’s no shame in wanting more quality time with people. “There is a loneliness that we get because we're not around other people, and there's the loneliness that we get because of our internal dialogue and the way we perceive the world,” Franco explains. If you’re dealing with the latter—the loneliness that comes from past rejection, trauma, or a mental health condition—you might want to chat with your provider about how you’re feeling. “If you felt really rejected in the past—or you've had experiences of rejection or bullying that you haven't worked through—that's going to [impact] how you interpret time alone,” Franco adds. So it could be worth it to begin the journey of processing those past experiences.
Original article appeared on SELF | Author Patia Braithwaite