As of 7th April, 2020 around 100 countries have instituted either total or partial lockdown. A new coronavirus has been rampaging the world with COVID-19, a deadly disease that’s straining health services, the economy and, most importantly, us.
It’s a weird situation. We can’t meet friends, family or loved ones – let alone hold them. Holidays and business trips are cancelled without rescheduling. People around the world are seeing their income dwindle rapidly even with questionable rescue plans from governments. Don’t get me started on the looming financial crisis.
Nonetheless, it looks like the planet is becoming community. Video-conferencing companies, what I like to call “digital socialising” platforms, have seen a boom in new users and google searches for Zoom have doubled in the last month.
Our societal ability to adapt to isolation is a testament to resilience. And yet, in the midst of a global pandemic that calls for unity, some of us are left to face the dark fog of loneliness. I’ve lived alone for nearly two years. I’ve also visited 8 countries by myself in the last decade, including a road trip across New Zealand. My point is I know a thing or two about solitude and loneliness – and how to cope.
Coping with loneliness
Before we get into this, please remember that I’m not a mental health professional and the following advice is based purely on my experience. I’m also assuming that 1) you either are alone now or you don’t spend time with another person in your household; 2) you have been in touch with your loved ones but are struggling to cope when you’re not interacting socially and 3) you don’t struggle with any other mental health issue on your day-to-day.
If you are living with a mental health condition, isolation could be testing your existing coping mechanisms. Make sure you speak to your therapist (if you have one) and keep taking your meds (if you’re meant to take them).
If you’re at risk of harm, reach out to a trusted friend or family member or to one of the charities listed at the end of this post. You are not alone.
1. Accept your feelings
When I’ve been in faraway countries where I can’t just call my friends for a spontaneous coffee date, I’ve had to come up with different strategies to ground myself. Understanding and accepting the fact that I feel lonely and misunderstood is the first step. At this point, you don’t even have to do any deeper thinking to see why you’re feeling like this. You only need to give yourself permission to feel lonely. Maybe this will make you cry for a bit. Perhaps it’ll make you feel lethargic or without the will to do anything.
And that’s OK. Let yourself feel like this.
2. Put your phone down
Probably every single cell in your body is telling you to call everyone in your contact list. Don’t. You’ll end up texting your ex or that person that is not your ex but you’re only keeping around for this type of situation. Guess what? No matter what anyone says to you right now, it won’t be what you want to hear.
Years of therapy have taught me that no one, absolutely no one, has the responsibility to keep you company. Forcing your circles to “cure” your loneliness could push them away (as they too could be struggling with the current situation in their own way) and make you feel even more distant. Scrolling through social networks endlessly will give you serious FOMO and envy. So put your phone down, take a moment to gather your bearings and look at what’s around you.
3. Pay attention to detail
You’ve accepted that you’re feeling lonely, noticed that you’re seeking human attention and put your phone down. Now what? Whenever I feel lonely while I travel – either because I haven’t settled into the new environment yet or I haven’t connected with anyone – I take a step back and observe.
Paying attention to mundane details helps me regulate the speed of my thoughts and take control of my emotions. In quarantine, this has translated into sitting by the window for a good pigeon and crow watching session, trying to listen to the neighbour playing the piano or looking at how plants change throughout the day.
Grounding exercises are useful techniques meant to help individuals with PTSD and/or anxiety pull themselves away from unwanted memories, triggers or challenging emotions. By putting them into practice, you’re essentially distracting your brain from panic.
4. Do something only you love
Whether at home or just arrived at a new hostel for the night, one thing that makes me feel very lonely is the perceived inability to do “fun” things. Not having people doing stuff with can feel like there’s no point in doing them, and that you don’t belong in society.
If you’re not used to doing much by yourself, it’ll take a bit of courage to enjoy traditionally social activities on your own. For example, I’m a huge fan of jazz and a good G&T. It’s only been recently that I’ve learnt enjoying either by myself, and it has been a true revelation.
Do you love to bake a cake and eat a piece (or two) with a hot chocolate? You bake yourself that cake, boo. You play that jazz playlist or lipsynch for your life to Lana Del Rey. It’ll make you feel good and alive. You don’t need an audience for fun things to happen to you.
5. Remind yourself that you’ve got a tribe
Last, but not least. You are NOT alone. Repeat that as much as you need. Humans are social animals. Most of us thrive in social environments and gravitate towards like-minded people. We struggle when we’re alone for too long. While travelling, I usually keep a small list of close friends and family I know will reply to a text or call when I need them.
This trick has also proved useful during isolation. When we first went into lockdown, I wrote a list of those I knew I could rely on and who could rely on me, and another one of friendships I wanted to nurture. When loneliness strikes and a little nasty voice tells me I’m all by myself, I take a look and send a couple of texts. Hopefully, they’re down for a chat or they let me know when they’ll call.
You’ve got this
These are scary times to live in. We don’t have a point of reference that can direct our thoughts and actions, but you’ve got this. You’ll pull through and we’ll meet again – on the trail, road or water.