Strategies for Coping with Isolation and Loneliness During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Contributors: Dr. Russell Fulmer, Dr. Michele Kerulis, Alexandria Widener, Lauren Brdecka, Ali Haji, Colbertson Kreger, Zemzem Amme, Sue Tao
“Loneliness is not a phase”
– Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains in the song Angry Chair
People respond to a world crisis in different ways. Some, including first responders, doctors, sanitation workers, and those in food preparation, must continue going to work to maintain essential functions in our communities. Others who are under stay-at-home orders have responded with stress, anxiety, and despair; they likely feel lonely and isolated. However, some people see a silver lining, have faith in humanity, and believe that, together, we can do our part to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has worried many people who already are anxious. We live in the Age of Anxiety. For those who experience the turbulence of anxiety, loneliness, panic, or existential angst in the best of times, a global pandemic may further trigger the underlying sense of existing uncertainty.
If you are lonely and anxious, we–members of the Counseling@Northwestern community–want to share how we are managing isolation and social distancing with the hope you may learn how to address the situation from different perspectives.
Our purpose is to:
- Identify common types of isolation. Identification may be the first step toward lessening some of the pain. We draw from existential theory and philosophy, notably the work of Irvin Yalom.
- Provide tips from students who deal with each type of pain, so that you might use their coping strategies. You will see that some students embrace isolation or otherwise identify positives from its onset.
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Types of Isolation
There are three types of isolation: interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential.
Interpersonal isolation is akin to loneliness. The often-repeated phrase that “it’s not the quantity of your relationships that matter, it’s the quality,” is relevant here. Certain personality styles may crave interactions with people more than other styles. Group identity is also relevant, including whether you belong to a group that society has traditionally shunned or oppressed.
Intrapersonal isolation is to disavow of part of the self. Have you ever said, “A part of me has died?” Do you recall a time you felt whole, but after a traumatic event, you felt fragmented? Maybe you have felt fragmented ever since. Or, did parts of you never have a chance to develop, maybe due to dysfunction in the home during your upbringing? If so, you know intrapersonal isolation.
Existential isolation, as described by Yalom, is “a vale of loneliness which has many approaches. A confrontation with death and with freedom will inevitably lead the individual into that vale.” The existential form of isolation refers to the inherent gap that exists between people, no matter how close the bond. For example, your experience about an event—like the coronavirus scare—is unique to you, and your feelings about it, perceptions toward it, and exact encounters you have because of it will live only within you. Other people may have similar attitudes and experiences, but the unbridgeable gap remains.
Eight Tips for Managing and Thriving in Isolation During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Learning to Accept Your Feelings While Experiencing Existential Isolation
For me, experiencing existential isolation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though it does add another layer to my depression. Granted, I didn’t always view it in this manner. I used to fear the voice in my head that told me life was meaningless and nothing would change. I resorted to self-destructive measures in a desperate attempt to silence it. Nothing worked; I was always left alone with that voice in my head to keep me company. The only way to conquer it was to embrace it.
My main tip for anyone struggling with existential isolation or depression if it occurs as a result of isolation is to accept your feelings. Once you accept feelings of depression as a part of yourself, you gain autonomy over it.
However, there is a thin line between acceptance and concession. Acceptance places the power in your hands because it indicates you are acknowledging the discomfort and choosing to “sit with it” as opposed to running away. For me, accepting my depression means recognizing I interpret and feel things differently from others. I’m not always happy, and that’s OK. Embracing this knowledge frees me from pretending to be something I am not.
Obviously, my experience will not be the same as yours. I can’t list coping skills to help you because what works for me might not work for you. People can accompany you on your journey to offer guidance and support, but ultimately, you arrive at the final destination alone. I’m genuinely enjoying the current social distancing and stay-at-home orders imposed by state leaders due to the coronavirus. Getting to choose when I interact with people has been refreshing. Once I accepted that whatever will be will be, it alleviated a lot of stress and anxiety. I’m not saying that I don’t think I can play a role in helping, nor am I saying that I have surrendered to complacency. I think we should come together and do what we can to flatten the curve. I just recognize that regardless of our efforts, what’s going to happen will happen. All we can do is our best. What that means for me is helping those who are most vulnerable, chilling with my dog, and binge watching The Good Doctor as I do my part to slow the spread by staying inside.
Tending to Yourself in Intrapersonal Isolation
Many of us, myself included, are familiar with intrapersonal isolation. At one time we felt whole and circumstances, events, and people took away that sense of wholeness. Circumstances such as the COVID-19 outbreak can trigger intrapersonal isolation. In a time like this, life is very limited, life-altering choices are being made for us, we have physical limitations, there is an acute sense of danger and caution, some of us may become hypervigilant, and the looming danger and fear may exist without the words to fully articulate the larger scope of your feelings and circumstances.
Intrapersonal isolation, very simply put, is isolation of parts of yourself. During this time of literal isolation, I have reflected on varying parts of myself and my once full life—my loving and rewarding relationships with my nieces and nephews (7 months old, 3, and 7 years old), my sober community, and serving and supporting my clients’ mental health—have become starkly narrowed. Being ordered to isolate has, if nothing else, ensured my physical safety and given me clarity on important aspects of my life and things I can live without.
I can live without fast food, but in the long run, I will struggle to live happily without seeing members of my family. Amid these unique times, I make sure to tend to the parts within myself that are longing for security. When I feel threatened or unsafe, I always lean into those parts of myself and hear what they have to say and make certain I am not dodging or shushing them. I “re-parent” the parts of myself that feel lost. Re-parenting allows people to give ourselves what we didn’t receive as children, such as positive reinforcement, someone who will listen to me, unconditional love, etc. I engage in re-parenting to heal the younger parts of myself that show up in adulthood.
For me, taking action to relax and stay grounded really helps. These things include yoga, stretching, cooking, taking a hot shower or bath, and meditation. Also, I ask myself, are there parts within me that believe being able to leave the house will make this easier? In fact, I am seeking more control in my life because the truth of it is, I am safer at home. On a daily basis, I FaceTime people I know, and I have reached out to friends to ask if we can go on walks together while standing far apart. The global pandemic requires me to be flexible in ways we have never had to be, and that is not inherently bad, although it may be uncomfortable.
Above all, I know that most of the literal world is having to face these uncertain and uncomfortable times and, although I am physically alone, I, by no means, am alone, which has actually helped me to feel even more united to people and parts of the world I will never meet or see. Stay well for the time being all, and this, too, shall pass.
Reframing Your Feelings Related to Interpersonal Isolation
With social distancing becoming the buzz phrase of 2020, and for good reason, understanding the ramifications of interpersonal isolation on our mental health is important. All of us have likely felt the effects of interpersonal isolation and perhaps the one with which we are most familiar. Interpersonal isolation is defined as a person-person isolation. In other words, isolation from other beings. It is important to note that this does not always have to take a physical form. Interpersonal isolation can exist amid group gatherings whereby the way we relate to others is not ideal for what the group setting requires. Given the current state of society, I will focus most on the more literal, physical separation from others with which most of us are currently coping.
As with most things in our life that render us out of control, knowing how to cope with the resulting feelings can make or break us. In my experience, interpersonal isolation and the subsequent loneliness that can result is a challenge. With any difficult feeling, I find it important to understand how the loneliness that I experience is unique to myself. I ask myself questions like “Where do I feel this feeling in my body?” and “What physiological sensations can I associate with it?” This process brings a mindful attention to our present moment, allowing us to observe the arrival and departure of uncomfortable feelings, thereby helping us to objectify them. The process of objectification and being mindful of our visceral sensations can allow us to reframe thought processes like, “I am lonely,” with “that’s loneliness.” In my experience, allowing the feeling to pass rather than holding on to it and using our thinking minds to “figure it out” proves most effective, albeit most difficult as it requires an attention to our present moment and felt experiences. Loneliness, like most other feelings, can often be paired with concrete physiological sensations like our hearts pounding, heavy breathing, or muscle tension. The onset of these feelings can be quite alarming and noticeable but in bringing a mindful attention to our state of being, we notice that the aforementioned sensations are not permanently lodged in our system but rather able to neutralize and dissipate as time passes. For example, maybe after a few minutes, we notice our breathing return to normal and our muscles beginning to relax.
We might also consider why we deem loneliness a negative feeling. Our feelings guide us and perhaps these feelings of loneliness are a gentle reminder that we need to reach out to those around us in the ways that we can. The energy that loneliness brings might be applied to poetry, music, writing, or creating in some capacity. At the end of the day, removing the duality of positive and negative is our best bet at seeing our feelings for what they are—our visceral and honest connection with the environments and surroundings in which we find ourselves. Perhaps they are not things that we need to avoid and push away and more so a highly personalized teacher that we have 24/7 access to, informing us of our limits and boundaries. We have a greater capacity to neutralize and feel our feelings than we give ourselves credit and sometimes reminding ourselves to have mastery of our feelings rather than be slave to them is the push we need. And hey, a Zoom-based social hour can always help.
Using Isolation to Encourage Acceptance of Your Authentic Self
In a society that promotes conformity while shunning originality, it is hard to find our place within the maelstrom of social self-acceptance. The person I am behind closed doors is my authentic self, whereas when the door opens, I become a performer. I am performing for the masses and myself a certain standard of human interaction, while at the same time wildly fantasizing about the feeling of authenticity. Taking the step toward an authentic experience with others, and most importantly, yourself, is to take a step into the unknown. We have performed since our birth, and now is a time to learn who we really are. Your uniqueness may be overshadowed by anxiety and internal critique, but that shadow can only be cast if you stand behind your angst instead of finally taking that fabled step toward the light of self-authenticity.
I have taken that step. I have shouldered the burden of being unique and all the notions that are attached, and I have felt the warm sun upon my face for the first time. Our purpose here has been constructed into spending our time to benefit a culture and society that does nothing more than break people down. Our time is for growth and taking the steps toward discomfort. Growth will only occur during a period of discomfort, and in a world of lies and fear mongering, we all owe it to ourselves to put down the mask, and to finally act as who we are.
Embracing Growth in the Face of Interpersonal Isolation
With so many limitations now in place due to the ever-changing circumstances of the coronavirus, it is nearly impossible to still have your pre-pandemic routine. Sudden change commonly brings a period of mourning and anxiety that occurs when navigating through your new reality.
During these moments, I find Viktor Frankl’s words fitting: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This is the time where I challenge myself by finding new ways to still enjoy my time at home. It can be easier to focus on what we have lost, rather than seeing what we now can explore. Just like any growth, we are never truly ready. This is something new and it creates an opportunity—if you choose to seize it—for change. Whether you are reconnecting with individuals, better organizing your house, or doing the daunting task of confronting your internal conflicts, there is a chance of coming out of isolation changed for the better.
Even though we are bombarded with many new ways of communicating, it doesn’t replace what we are used to. As human beings, we are constantly communicating with people, whether verbally, through sign, or something as simple as eye contact. There is no right way to handle communication and connection disruptions during this situation, but there are ways to assuage the loneliness that we feel. For me, this is the time for reflection, when I can truly focus on what matters most. Though I may take this as a time for growth, the reality is that most of my growth happened around a community. Even though we all may experience this uncharted territory differently, one thing that doesn’t change is that we are experiencing this phenomenon together.
Generating Meaning from the Reality of Isolation
Week two into social distancing, I have mastered a daily coping routine to keep myself active, both mind and body, and to keep from feeling isolated. I’ve taken advantage of this time that I call “a break from the world” to realign my personal agendas that have been pending due to the lack of time I had before the pandemic, such as studying for my national counselor exam. I recently integrated hosting a daily social hour with friends on Zoom, which has been a great hit with new friends dialing in, and group walks every other day for fresh air and live conversations with friends who are not exposed to COVID-19 and have complied with social distancing/isolation the past couple weeks. Lastly, I engage in daily mindfulness techniques, a skill set I am enhancing so I can teach my clients in the counseling arena about the benefits of mindfulness with competence and confidence.
I was determined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to not let the news and media affect my mental health well-being, because so often, stress and anxiety can be accumulated from consuming excessive news and media (which I have personally witnessed among my family and friends). No pun intended, but anxiety is a strand of virus that feeds the fear in us. All in all, I think that isolation is subjective, and it is my responsibility to generate a meaningful and productive day, one day at a time.
Living in Isolation as an Extrovert
Dr. Michele Kerulis
I am a social butterfly so having a mandated stay-at-home order feels very confining for me as an extrovert. I feel very fortunate that I am used to working from home. This experience allows me to feel 100% confident in my ability to work from home for prolonged periods.
What is difficult for me during this time is having my stress management tools taken away without advance notice. Part of my self-care routine is attending yoga classes, going to the gym, and participating in sporting events, many of which have been canceled. My gyms are closed so the routine of separating myself from work and going into a different environment to wind down from my day is no longer an option.
Each year, I look forward to seeing my colleagues at counseling conferences where we come together as a community and celebrate our amazing mental health field. Like falling dominos, we watched our community conferences canceled, one after another. I was devastated to learn I would not be able to see my fellow professors and counselors, as we frequently share ideas about how to continue providing for our students and clients. I was looking forward to providing a keynote address to my colleagues and helping to decrease the stigma related to seeking counseling services.
Like many helpers, I was shocked at the magnitude of the pandemic and I wanted to know what I could do to help. I know that I must care for myself if I want to be effective at caring for others. What I have done during the stay-at-home order is committed to a daily schedule to help create a sense of normalcy during these chaotic times. I suggest that people continue as if they were going on with their pre-pandemic routines as best they can. For me, this includes completing morning hygiene tasks, making a cup of coffee or tea, attending to work responsibilities online, and exercising. I take breaks throughout the day and connect with people. I call, text, and have Zoom video chats with friends, colleagues, and loved ones. I enjoy simple things like watching animal videos online, participating in home workouts from Pinterest, and looking at beautiful photos. I find that these simple, enjoyable things help decrease stress.
I have also turned off the TV and have asked specific people in my life to inform me of pandemic updates if/when my community status changes. I believe the oversaturation of media coverage is not healthy for society. Instead of overindulging in repetitive media posts and stories, I think it is more effective for people to come together as a community (while maintaining social distance) and to follow the recommendations of trusted health authorities like the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until the pandemic subsides, we must have faith in ourselves to keep living our day-to-day lives so we can be effective counselors and teachers.
Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University