Finding ways to connect with other people to improve your mental health
It's easy to feel alone. Many people struggle to build meaningful connections with other people, and the global pandemic has not made this struggle any easier. COVID-19 has caused an increase in social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Many are cautious to venture out and meet new people due to concerns about COVID-19.
This is understandable. Each person needs to weigh risks and act in a way that promotes safety and overall well-being. This assessment includes being aware of the damages to our mental and physical health when we are isolated.
The health risks of loneliness and isolation
Social isolation and loneliness can occur at the same time, but they are two different things. The CDC offers the following definition:
Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. Social isolation is a lack of social connections. Social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, while others can feel lonely without being socially isolated.
In other words, you can find someone who is lonely but not isolated. And you could find someone who is isolated but not lonely.
Nevertheless, there are physical, mental, and emotional risks associated with isolation and loneliness. For example, loneliness or social isolation has been associated with increased risks for heart disease, stroke, and premature death. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide (CDC, 2021).
In addition, the National Institute of Health notes that people who are lonely can experience emotional pain. This pain may cause them to feel threatened and become mistrusting of other people. They are also at risk to develop chronic inflammation, which reduces the body's immune response (NIH, 2021).
Anyone can experience loneliness or isolation, but some groups of individuals are more at risk than others. People are more at risk for feeling lonely and experiencing isolation if they
Live by themselves
Are not engaging in meaningful activities
Are unable to leave their homes
Have a limited support system
Suffer from mental health disorders like depression
Because of COVID-19, many individuals are at an increased risk to experience isolation and loneliness. Initially, people were unable to leave their homes, and people were unable to engage in activities like they normally would. Those with limited support systems and people who lived alone had a harder time connecting with other people.
There was also an increase in overall depression, anxiety, stress, sleep problems, and psychological stress among the entire population (Lakhan, Agrawal, & Sharma,2020).
COVID-19 is still influencing our social interactions. Many are still at risk for social isolation and loneliness. This makes it critical to develop strategies to help reduce risk for and to combat isolation and loneliness.
Combating isolation and loneliness post pandemic
There are safety concerns related to COVID-19. People have different comfort levels when it comes to social interactions. Regardless of your personal level of comfort or case load in your area, there are steps you can take to reduce your isolation and your risk for loneliness.
Make a conscious effort to reach out to other people.
There are multiple ways to reach out to other people that do not involve physical contact. Send a text message, write an email, write a letter, or give someone a call. Using video chat services like Skype and Zoom can also be beneficial (National Institute of Health, 2021).
Remember, something doesn't have to be time-consuming to be meaningful. Send genuine texts that encourage dialogue and help other people feel cared about. It can be simple or complex. "Hi, I was thinking about you today. How are you doing?" Ask about something that the person has done recently or talk about a common interest that you share.
You can reach out to other people that you know are isolated. For example, if you know people who are in quarantine because of an exposure to COVID-19, contact them to ask if they need anything. If you know someone who lives alone, check in to see if you can get together and engage in a safe activity.
You can even make a clear plan of how to reach out. Make a list of people to text or call. Set aside time for phone calls or to write letters.
Get involved in the community through volunteering.
Volunteering has known health benefits. Volunteering can help relieve stress, help people stay active mentally and physically, and decrease risk for depression. Volunteering can also help you meet new people and develop new relationships (Mayo Clinic, 2017).
Consider your current situation and where you would feel comfortable volunteering. You could get involved through community or religious groups. Many opportunities have safeguards in place to help participants feel safe. For example, you could focus your volunteer efforts in an area that is outside or where social distancing is more easily managed.
Consider your personal interests as well. What do you feel passionate about? What do you enjoy? For example, if you enjoy working with animals, you could volunteer at a humane society. If you feel passionate about making sure people have enough to eat, you could volunteer at a food pantry.
It is also possible to make use of non-traditional volunteering options. For example, maybe you are excellent with technology. You could volunteer your time to teach computer skills to people who are inexperienced in this area.
Make the most of your social interactions.
Don't ignore the social opportunities that you do have. While they may be limited, take advantage of what is available. There are multiple ways to find ways to interact with people. Remember that even if it doesn't fit with what you would consider "normal," don't throw an idea out.
Consider your own feelings and reservations about a particular event or activity. If you are nervous about a social interaction, ask yourself why so you can get to the heart of the problem.
Quality matters over quantity. When you spend time with someone, make an effort to not be distracted during your time together. People do notice when we are checking our phones. So, when you're meeting up with someone in person, make a conscious effort to not be on your phone or distracted by other environmental factors (John Hopkins University, 2020).
Remember that social conversations don't have to just be small talk. In fact, there is evidence that having deeper conversations is linked to higher levels of happiness than engaging in small talk. Deeper conversations are when meaningful information is exchanged, while small talk leaves both participants knowing about the same information as when they started the conversation (Cohut, 2018).
Talk about what you feel passionately about. Small talk isn't a bad thing, but it's also okay to gear toward meaningful conversations. Remember this can be in both the in-person context and over virtual means.
Building up social connections
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our social interactions. It can feel odd to meet and interact with people again. Relearning social skills and cues can feel daunting. Don't be afraid to take small steps and work your way up to increased social interaction.
Interacting with others, whether that be over digital platforms or in person can help decrease our risks for social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Find where you are at, including your comfort level and level of social connections. Then work to build up those social interactions and connections.
It is critical to care for both our physical and mental health. And while many may still be wary of the virus, it is vital to take care of our mental well-being. Take steps to avoid isolation and loneliness. Find ways to connect with people.
CDC. (2021, April 29). Loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions. Retrieved September 07, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html
Cohut, M., PhD. (2018, July 5). How do your conversations affect your well-being? Retrieved September 08, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322367
Lakhan, R., Agrawal, A., & Sharma, M. (2020, September 11). Prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress during covid-19 pandemic. Retrieved September 08, 2021, from https://www.thieme-connect.de/products/ejournals/html/10.1055/s-0040-1716442
National Institutes of Health. (2021, January 14). Loneliness and social isolation - tips for staying connected. Retrieved September 07, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected
Simpson, B. W. (2020, April 3). How to prevent social isolation from making loneliness worse. John Hopkins University. Retrieved September 08, 2021, from https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2020/how-to-prevent-social-isolation-from-making-loneliness-worse