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COVID-19: Curbing a loneliness epidemic

With a government-imposed lockdown isolating us from our family and friends, clinical psychologist Dr Christopher Graham, a Senior Lecturer in Queen’s School of Psychology, shares his tips for keeping in touch while keeping your distance.

Most of us understand that social distancing, quarantine and isolation are important steps in the fight against the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, particularly if we want to protect the most vulnerable in our society. However, shutting down our social life and distancing ourselves from those we care most about is difficult. There is a bitter irony in the fact that we likely need the support of our family and friends now more than ever as we collectively navigate what is undoubtedly a scary and uncertain time.

“Our friends can offer a perspective shift, someone to bounce your feelings off and somebody to connect with,” says Dr Christopher Graham, a Senior Lecturer in Queen’s School of Psychology.

Staying connecting

“We are social beings so being out of contact with others is difficult for many of us,” says Dr Graham. “Generally, we feel happier and healthier when we are connected to other people.”

Therefore, it’s important to embrace new ways to communicate to help stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“Physically, we can’t go and see our friends and family, but we can still be socially connected:  we can make phone calls, WhatsApp, make use of Skype…There are all these ways to be socially connected even though we can’t physically be. There is something special about being physically close to another person, but lots of social connection can be done through social media and apps.”

If we are in close contact with those that know and love us, we are more likely to spot when feeling of anxiety, fear, loneliness or worry are threatening to overwhelm us.

Person using a mobile phone

Getting a perspective shift

“Often, the first people to notice if you are feeling overly anxious or worried about something is your friends and your family,” says Dr Graham. “Those that know and love us can help put our problems into context. If you notice that your mood is dropping and your motivation is dropping or you are getting more anxious, speaking to somebody who knows you and cares about you might help. It can take your attention from your world into theirs and give you a change of scenery.”

Social benchmarking

Staying connected during this period of uncertainty also means our friends and family can serve as a litmus test for our own – often confusing – feelings and emotions.

“We are influenced by the people around us,” says Dr Graham. “If you are walking down the street and you are walking towards another person, for example, you will notice that they adjust for you from a distance; they will move in one direction or the other.”

In the same way, talking through our anxiety and fear about the pandemic with other people can move us in one direction, or the other. “If we are talking to people who are more anxious about things, then we our mood may change. This does not always happen in obvious ways –that calm people calm us down. For example, I get nervous about giving talks, but one of things that is guaranteed to make me calm is meeting someone who is more anxious than me. Maybe that’s when I start to focus on something else as opposed to just my own anxiety…” says Dr Graham. “Speaking to other people is so helpful to us in so many ways, psychologically. Some people we will feel the need to look after, others will look after us.

Man with a phone to his ear

Reaching out

With extra space and time on our hands, there is also the potential to enhance your friendships and reignite old ones. “Maybe the opportunity within the COVID crisis is that we have got an excuse to contact people we haven’t in a while,” suggests Dr Graham.

“If you have an older relative and if they learn how to use Skype, then they have opened up a whole range of opportunities for themselves. It might mean they will be in contact with someone they haven’t spoken to in a long period of time.

“I think there are going to be opportunities that will open up. Now, is the time to check in and see how they are doing. That friendship that maybe hasn’t been so good and you weren’t sure whether to contact them? Now you have got an excuse, on you go.”

School of Psychology