Is the pandemic actually making us less lonely?

loneliness during the pandemic coronavirus
Photo via Hernán Piñera/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Experts were concerned about a rise in loneliness during the pandemic 
  • Virtual communication has led to a downtick in reports of loneliness
  • Improved communication could mark a permanent change 

Before COVID-19 monopolized all of our attention, we were beginning to address the issue of a loneliness epidemic. Experts were concerned that this issue would worsen and that there would be more loneliness during the pandemic. Evidence suggests, however, that the opposite may have occurred. The coronavirus pandemic may have actually eased our loneliness and made people far more willing to discuss their sense of isolation.

Early research suggests that loneliness has not only evened out over the course of the pandemic, but it may have actually improved, though other research shows that depression symptoms have increased during the pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic, concerns were high that social distancing measures would lead to a marked uptick in societal loneliness. Experts advised citizens how to keep in touch long-distance and cautioned them to keep an eye out for hints of loneliness, depression, and anxiety in their friends and families. This advice may have marked a permanent change in how we, as a society, consider loneliness and isolation.

The research shows a minor rise in loneliness at the start of the pandemic—as people adjusted to quarantine—but a gradual decrease as time went on. The adjustment to Zoom hangouts and other digital forms of communication soon showed that we can remain close, even from a distance. The study also notes the difference between loneliness and isolation. 

Isolation is the “objective state of being alone,” according to Scientific American, whereas loneliness is the “subjective experience of disconnection.” This means that even surrounded by people, someone can still feel lonely. Before the pandemic, this was a relatively common experience. Thanks to the increased attention we’ve been paying since social distancing measures went into effect, however, this trend might be slowing down.

Concerns over the legitimate health risk presented by loneliness were high on experts’ minds at the start of the pandemic, and on Sept. 9, the American Medical Association published a piece about how doctors could talk to their patients about possible loneliness. A number of health issues are connected to loneliness, including enhanced risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide. A recent study also showed that nearly one-third of hospitalized COVID-19 patients experienced an altered mental function. On top of the risks to mental health, loneliness can also lead to enhanced risk of heart disease and stroke. Strangely, the coronavirus appears to have helped in some cases.

If you are feeling lonely as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its sixth month, there are ways to combat those feelings of isolation. Getting some sunshine is always good for the spirit, so consider taking a socially-distanced walk alone or with a friend, neighbor, or nearby relative. Use technology to your advantage and try out digital hangouts, happy hours, or maybe even a game night. There could be someone else in your life feeling similarly alone, so make sure to reach out. 

Sources: Scientific American, ECommunity, APA, Time

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