The calls for “social distancing” are echoing around the world. For lots of people, it’s no longer an option—it’s a government mandate. Communities are banding together to protect the most vulnerable, and people are avoiding public spaces and large gatherings. Restaurants and stores have shut their doors. Many workers have relocated to their homes, while others have been laid off. The demand for other jobs (nursing, delivery drivers, etc.) has gone through the roof, placing significant stress on workers, systems and established routines.
We’re being forced—ready or not—into a fight against an enemy that we can’t see, hear or fully understand. We are throwing punches in the dark. Like annoying, overbearing little league parents, everyone is yelling at us and telling us what to do, armchair quarterbacking every step as if they know how to handle things. But in reality, we’re up against something we’ve never faced before. And worse, it feels like we’re fighting alone.
And when I say “we,” I’m not being cute or trite. I’m experiencing this too. My family has been out of town for the past week as this has unfolded, and I’ve found myself scared, lonely and feeling out of control . . . and I’ve been a crisis responder for years!
Here’s the truth: Sudden fear, confusion and instant disconnection is a toxic recipe for panic, anxiety, misplaced rage and addiction. Regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or how tough you think you are, the only way to get through the coming days/weeks/months is to remain connected to one another. Loneliness will cripple us physically, unwind us mentally, and make it impossible to be spiritually whole. Loneliness is poison.
When our brains recognize that we’re disconnected and lonely, it sounds the anxiety alarms. The anxiety alarms can feel like accelerated heart rates, waking up throughout the night, emotional outbursts, and obsessively checking any and all electronic devices in an effort to find connection. When our alarms are ringing at full blast, we make dumb decisions (toilet paper for a respiratory illness, anyone?). But the damage goes beyond being impulsive. Chronic stress actually impairs our immune system.
The only thing that silences the alarms is connection with other people.
Obviously, we’re facing a big challenge. We’re quarantined at home, and the places where we’d normally connect—church, school, gyms, coffee shops—are shut down. But I’ve got some good news for you: Even during a global pandemic, it’s possible to take care of yourself, fight loneliness, and enjoy meaningful connection.
7 Ways to Deal With Loneliness During Social Distancing
Below are the seven things I’m doing right now to quiet the alarms and keep myself sane while being totally alone (my family arrives back home in a few hours, and that will present another set of both joys and challenges . . . I’ll blog on that soon). These are not theories or cheesy steps you’d find on Pinterest. These are the actual things I’m doing to keep myself well, whole and connected during these strange times. I’m sharing them because I believe they can help you during this time too.
Here we go:
1. Limit social media and news consumption to twice a day. Period.
From this point forward, I’m only checking the internet in the midmorning and late afternoon. For me, this even includes TV and movies. While it feels like things are changing minute by minute, they aren’t. Protect your heart and mind and just turn off the electronics.
2. Call and have in-person conversations with friends and family.
Over the past few days, I’ve spoken with Todd, Trevor, Craig and Buddy—four of my old college roommates. I’ve talked with some old friends, Melissa and Jeff, and several folks from my work community. I’ve used FaceTime and spoken to family members and mentors. And of course, I’ve called my mom every day. Connecting through voice or FaceTime—not texting—is critical. Texting passes along information—it doesn’t offer connection. Call your loved ones.
3. Take multiple walks outside every day.
Nature is important for your heart, mind and body. Movement is critical for physical and mental health. Seeing other people (from a safe distance) is healing. I’m going out of my way to greet every person I pass on the street, I’m walking long distances (regardless of the weather), and I’m lifting weights in my home every time I pass by the dumbbells. Get outside and move.
4. Read both fiction and nonfiction.
Somehow, we’ve developed a perception that reading fiction is a waste of time. This is ridiculous. Picking up good fiction books allows our frontal lobes (the part of our brain that processes information and solves problems) to take a break from trying to fix everything. Reading allows us to enter new worlds, detach, and use our imaginations in ways that television doesn’t.
5. Serve in any way that you can.
Service to others allows us to keep our community strong and grounded. And of course, service will look differently for each of us. It might look like ordering a pizza and tipping the driver an obnoxious amount of money. Or it might be sending money to your barber, even though he’s not cutting your hair this month. If you don’t have the extra cash, service may be handwriting letters to people in your church. It may be checking on your neighbors and making sure they have what they need. Or it may just be grabbing a trash bag and picking up trash on your neighborhood walk. Whatever it is, find ways to serve. Start right now.
6. Do a quick checkup of your financial and physical needs.
I took a realistic inventory of what my family and I need to take care of our financial needs, both now and over the next few weeks. We’re facing two possibilities: that this gets wrapped up soon, or it gets worse in the coming days. There’s a fine line between wise planning and pathological hoarding. Before you go to the store, make a list of what you need, stick to it, and honor others in your community by only getting what you need. And if you have a working water hose, you don’t need bottled water.
7. Pray and practice mindfulness.
This situation has reminded me in a very real way that I control very few things in my life. I can only control my thoughts and my behaviors. That’s it. Prayer keeps me grounded when everything feels out of control. If you have an established faith or church community, carve out extra time to pray, and even host virtual prayer gatherings to bring people together. You can also practice mindfulness through any number of meditation apps. Or simply put away your devices, sit still, breathe, and focus your thoughts on being present where you are. Also, keeping a gratitude journal has numerous mental health, spiritual and wellness benefits. Do it.
We must honor the calls to be good citizens and practice social distancing. We must also do everything in our collective power to remain connected to our friends and loved ones, to our physical, spiritual and mental selves, and to our local communities. We must be intentional and kind. And I know that we can do this. If you have existing mental health challenges, or if you’re experiencing fear or anxiety in a way that feels debilitating or scary, please reach out to your local medical doctor or mental health professional immediately.
A new reality is upon us. I’m convinced that if we accept this break from our previous routines with gratitude and openness, and we become deeply intentional about connecting with ourselves, our roommates, our families and our communities, we will emerge from this more deeply connected to the people we love than ever before.