COVID-19: how to cope with loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic

With cases of coronavirus on the rise, the public has been asked to follow social distancing guidelines and self-isolate to curb the spread of the virus.

Although sticking to the advice is essential in the current crisis, staying at home with limited human contact can have a significant impact on our mental well-being - and in particular, feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness is a growing epidemic in the UK with 2.4 million adults feeling lonely, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Although older people are particularly vulnerable to feeling lonely, it can affect people of all ages, particularly if they are quarantined at home.

"Self-isolation stops us engaging with normal day-to-day life," says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy. "However, human connection is vital for our sense of well-being. Limiting social interaction is likely to have an impact on our mood if we don't consciously work to maintain that connection by other means - for example, video calls or messaging.

"There are all kinds of small day-to-day interactions we don't normally think about which give us a sense of connection, such as buying a coffee or going to the gym," she adds. "Some people rely on these interactions for daily connection more than others - it becomes their coping mechanism.

"These people are likely to feel the impact of self-isolating much more than those who are able to maintain points of connection at home - with their partner or family, for instance."

Degrees of isolation

The current guidance is that everyone should be staying at home wherever possible. If they can, everyone should work from home - a major change for many. Social gatherings are also essentially banned.

But for two groups, the level of proposed isolation is even higher.

People with possible coronavirus and their household members

People with symptoms of possible coronavirus infection are required to self-isolate completely for at least seven days. Other people they live with must isolate for 14 days. But if you're in self-isolation because of symptoms, you should isolate yourself from your family as well as the rest of the world. That means being in a separate room from them ideally at all times.

People being shielded

The most vulnerable are also being advised to isolate themselves entirely in their homes for their own safety for 12 weeks from 23rd March. This is called shielding. Unless their partner is also staying inside entirely, they should be separated from any family members they live with.

When socialising in person is out of the question, then, what else can we do to beat loneliness?

How to combat loneliness

Stay in virtual contact

Meeting up with friends might not be possible right now, but you can stay in touch with everyone via technology. Download apps and chat, share updates and pictures to keep your spirits up when things are tough. You can also set up group videos chats on Skype - so you can pretend you are catching up in the pub, even when you're at home.

"Maintain connection as much as possible," Touroni says. "If not in-person, keep up communication with friends, family and colleagues online on WhatsApp, Facetime, Slack, Zoom etc."

Many of us forgo picking up the phone in favour of instant messaging, but now is the time to get in contact the old-fashioned way too. Just hearing a friend's voice can help reduce loneliness and make us feel more connected.

Plan home-based activities

If you don’t have access to a phone or the internet, distraction techniques can also help reduce isolation and loneliness. With many of us stuck at home, now is the time to get on with the things we haven't had time to do before.

"Have a brainstorming session and plan lots of activities you can do from home," Touroni says. "Consider goals you want to achieve so you can use this time productively - eg, learning a new skill, reading about a new topic, learning a language."

Set yourself challenges too, such as reading something new or baking something you've not made before. The sense of achievement helps to boost your mental well-being, as well as passing the time.

Structure your day

Having to stay at home all the time can make the days merge into one and seem endless. Therefore, it's important to try to stick to a routine, even when things are different and strange. Even getting up at the same time as normal and having lunch at a certain hour can help make us feel more settled and provide a sense of normality.

"Keep a structure to your day - plan some activities that get you moving, connecting and thinking," says Natasha Crowe, a member of the Counselling Directory. "Breaking the day down into bite-sized pieces helps us feel more in control.

"You could also have a timetable of activities that perhaps are planned - get creative and use your imagination and be practical. Taking back control over how you behave is really important right now."

Look after yourself

Keeping physically healthy can help boost mood and ease loneliness too, so it is important to eat as well as you can and get some exercise. Even if you can't get outside, there are plenty of online exercise videos to follow indoors.

"Try mindful activities, relaxation, breath work, gardening, yoga, listening to podcasts of music, watching films, games and drawing," Crowe says. "Helping and supporting each other is a lovely way of feeling gratitude and helps calm the worrying thoughts."

Reach out for help

If you are struggling with loneliness or your mental health, there are a lot of support groups to lend an ear and provide advice. The organisations Mind, Campaign to End Loneliness and Age UK are all offering information and support.

You can also still speak with a doctor if you are struggling with a mental health problem, and many surgeries are arranging telephone appointments. You may be given a face-to-face appointment if deemed appropriate, although surgeries are facing a high demand at the moment.

"If you feel low or worried, reach out and ask for help. Lots of fantastic community groups are supporting people locally up and down the country," Crowe says.

"Community is important to so many and being in a group or being social is vital to our well-being. Reminding yourself that you are well and safe. The world may seem smaller for now but it may give us an opportunity to slow down and rest."

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