Coping with Loneliness and Isolation

Elizabeth Spencer

I received a request to speak to a group practice today.  The email read in part: Many of our clinicians, as well as their clients, are feeling lonely and isolated, and now that the holidays are approaching those feelings will be magnified.  Even therapists working from home surrounded by a family can feel this isolation, as can college students returning home feel lonely at home as they miss their friends from school, or parents of young children feel isolated as they are unable to have their children participate in playgroups or preschool.

We humans are social creatures.

Loneliness can cause difficulties with concentration and decision making and can cause depression.  Sound familiar for yourself or your clients?  Feel stumped about how to help during the pandemic?

As always, I start by thinking about the CBT triangle of Thoughts / Actions / Feelings.  For the person feeling sad and isolated, they may think “It’s hopeless, there is no way for things to change until there is a vaccine and that is a long time away.”  Then they follow with inaction, typically sleeping more and doing less.  This is a difficult negative cycle.

In contrast, I know many people who escaped this trap.  One, a retired woman who at the start of the coronavirus pandemic had difficulty using technology, has gotten really good at zoom.  She is now part of 3 book clubs on zoom, she is taking a painting class online, and has a regular time every day to read to her 3-year-old granddaughter on video chat, which they both have thoroughly enjoyed.  She has done PT online and improved her fitness with a dance class for seniors. Her family threw her a virtual party for a milestone birthday and recorded it.  She loves to re-watch which she says she wouldn’t have been able to with an in-person party.

She recently said to me that she feels a bit guilty talking to her friends because they are so miserable, and she is happier and busier than she has been in years.  It’s easy to see that she had a choice at the start.  She chose to say to herself “This is my opportunity to figure out zoom” and she did it!  Then she found many opportunities to connect with others who shared common interests with her.  Her thoughts and her actions have brought her to this happy place in her life, a real testament to her resilience even as she spends almost all of her time actually alone in her apartment.

Think about what your thoughts, actions, and feelings are.  Can you find a place to make a change to help yourself increase your sense of connection to others?  If you use a Fitbit, share your data with a friend, and encourage each other to reach a daily step goal.  You will have a reason to touch base with your friend and a reason to walk more!  Find a recipe that you always wanted to make and see if a family member who lives in a far-off location will have a video call with you while you both cook together in your own homes.  Write a thank-you note to someone who helped you at a difficult time in your life as a teacher or coach.  There are many ways to connect when we look for them.

Our CBT skills work even in this situation that is new to all of us.  We can identify unhelpful thoughts and actions and take steps to try new strategies that can help us find joy even in tough times.



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