A guide to coping with loneliness in the age of COVID-19


By Liyana Zamzuri

A guide to coping with loneliness in the age of COVID-19

Loneliness affects everyone of all ages in different ways regardless of social or economic status. We have all felt it, but it isn’t the most comfortable topic to broach as some of us may feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling this way.

If you’ve been feeling disconnected and lonely (no thanks to social distancing)—worry not. Ahead, Dr Christina Pillai of Dr Christina Couple, Marriage & Family Therapy shares her perspective and advice on managing this situation and how to create a sense of normalcy in the midst of this crisis.

Is loneliness a growing problem?

“We are living in an ever increasing digital age. Never in history have we seen communication being this easy and accessible. The digitalisation of everything would make one think that we are now more connected than we were ever before, yet the ironic twist to this hyper-connected world is that we are feeling less socially and intimately connected. It is an era of ‘we click more than we feel, and type more than we talk to one another.’

“We have enveloped the vastness of our entire life of human experience, substituting human companionship for artificial intelligence. This has fundamentally changed the way humans operate with a growing reliance on technology, rather than face-to-face interaction. The relinquishing desire for a real and intimate conversation with real people or to receive a warm hug is now being replaced by a virtual hug or an emoji. We feel less connected to real people and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.

“Feeling lonely? Talk to a robot. Need answers? Google it. Hungry? Order food delivery. Looking for a life partner? Swipe on a dating app. We are not designed to have relationships with digital tools or robots. When we do, the side effects of disengaging from human companionship is loneliness.

We are social beings, who desire the need for quality connection to survive healthily and thrivingly.

“As far as the digital world is concern, we are surfing the waves of digital progression. Unfortunately, with increased digital connection, human lives are more disconnected than ever, dulling the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight) and silencing the voice and soul of humanity. It degrades the access to meaningful conversations, closeness and a sense of connection with less willingness to disclose genuine feelings. Notably, loneliness is one of the many growing problems with rapid digression of quality and not quantity of human bonds—which is vital for mental and physical health.”

What are the more common symptoms that are associated with loneliness?

“Loneliness comes in all types of form due to the subjective nature of how a person experiences loneliness in life. It is a wide spectrum with many different causes and affects people differently. It is not one size fits all. What is considered ‘meaningful’ and ‘supportive’ to one, may not be for another. Often times, loneliness is derived from personal circumstances associated with lifestyle and daily stresses that can make some feel lonely and alone.

“For some, loneliness is temporary and easily relieved, such as a spouse who returns home after being relocated for work. For others, loneliness is neither temporary nor solvable, such as a death of a spouse, or getting diagnosed with a mental or health issue. This can persist when an individual no longer has access to the person or does not know someone who truly understands and connects with the presenting mental or health issue.

“Some people experience loneliness as an overwhelmingly deep, and acute intense emotion that does not seem to disappear regardless of the social situation or the number of friends they have. It is a constant feeling that has deliberately made a permanent home in their lives. There are many reasons why an individual experiences such deep loneliness. One prominent reason is, difficulty loving self, and seeking approval from others to be liked.

“There are deeper issues at play here, which could possibly stem from the lack of emotional connection (feeling safe, comfortable, supported, accepted and understood) as a child; which in turn manifests when the individual is now adult. Furthermore, consciously or unconsciously, people tend to isolate themselves from relationships because they are afraid of getting hurt or disappointed.

“If you’re experiencing such deep loneliness, you may try to avoid being on your own and redirect it to spending more time socialising. If you isolate alone, you may develop unhealthy habits in the long run i.e. using drugs, alcohol, over-smoking, over-eating, over-exercising to escape your feelings of loneliness or to face social situations.

“We need face-to-face interactions to reap the full benefits of social connection. Those who experience less loneliness cultivate meaningful relationships.”

What is the difference between isolation and loneliness?

“Isolation is a choice. Loneliness is an emotion that surface in response to a need being not met. Even though isolation can cause loneliness, it does not necessarily always occur together per se. This means, an individual can be lonely, without being isolated or an individual can be isolated without being lonely.

“For example, you may be in a room filled with people, yet feel lonely. You may be the most socially outgoing person, yet feel lonely. You may have the most followers on social media, yet still feel lonely. You may be the most prominent figure in your society, yet feel lonely.

“For some, they prefer to be isolated for solitary activity to think, be creative, or rest—yet they feel a sense of fulfilment rather than loneliness. For some, isolation is seen as a form of ‘recharging your batteries’—a pleasant experience rather than an unpleasant experience.

“Loneliness is related and impacted more to the quality of your relationships (closeness and fulfilled) and not quantity, surrounded with lots of relationships but they are not close and fulfilling relationships.

“While isolation is seen as a physical proximity, a person also experiences emotional isolation due to past trauma, rejection or abandonment. Emotional isolation occurs when a person is hesitant, unwilling or unable to be vulnerable and share their emotions in relationships. They are comfortable keeping relationships at a superficial level. Without healthy emotional support and connection, a person gradually move towards social isolation—which can lead to loneliness.”

Is it true that the older you get, the lonelier you are?

“Many people tend to associate loneliness with older age due to the common headlines seen in the news. Yes, there are data collected correlating loneliness and older age, however there are also data collected in countries such as the US, New Zealand and Japan that found young adults feeling lonely more often than older adults. Let us look at the broader spectrum of how loneliness plays a role in different arenas.

Beliefs and attitude:

  • Not feeling good enough
  • Self doubt or lack of self confidence
  • Self rejection
  • Fear of rejection and abandonment
  • Trauma—physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Difficulty loving self and loving others
  • Wishful comparison with others

In this digital era:

  • Our relationships have grown to be more superficial than meaningful
  • Less face to face time and more screen time impedes our ability to develop and read social cues to better read other people’s emotions
  • The emphasis on the quantity rather than quality. How we speak to our loved ones (e.g., grandparents) are different than how we speak to our social followers.
  • Switch from traditional work to working remotely
  • Physically present—engaging with your phone, but emotionally unavailable.

Work-driven culture and the lack of healthy work-family balance:

  • We spend more time doing than being with one another
  • When a spouse works more than usual—the other spouse will feel lonely in the marital relationship
  • Dedicate more work time than family time. Long-term effects include a strained relationship with family members,  deteriorating family closeness and emotional connection”

How do you identify or recognise the most lonely people?

“The unpleasant feelings of loneliness are subjective. Due to its complexity and uniqueness to an individual, it has no single common cause to dictate conclusive signs of recognising loneliness in a person. We all go through experiences of loneliness, and we cope differently in ways that best suits us.

“All we have is just a guideline that is changeable and expandable based on the individual’s narrative of what constitutes loneliness. We must not use this guideline to conclusively label a person. Such signs are:

  • Inability to genuinely connect with people on a deeper and more intimate level
  • An overwhelming feeling of emotional isolation regardless of physical proximity
  • Constantly questioning your self worth (not feeling good enough and self doubting)
  • Fear of rejection and abandonment when you put yourself out there
  • You try your best to connect, be heard and seen but it is not reciprocated in return
  • Getting overly-attached to inanimate objects
  • Over-eating or over-spending
  • Difficulty loving self and others
  •  Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

“It is crucial to be willing to be assertive in order to take risks socially, to self-disclose, and be responsive to those around you—these are a few of the many ways to defeat loneliness.”

What is your view on the many different interventions that exist to address loneliness?

“Due to its complexity and uniqueness of loneliness to an individual, it has no single common cause. Prevention and treatment for an unpleasant feeling, can vary dramatically.

“There are many interventions developed to combat loneliness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing loneliness. Interventions and treatment planning must be tailored and fitted accordingly to the individual’s needs and the degree of loneliness experienced. Clinicians must clearly discern and recognise which intervention is suitable for who and how, including what context to effectively and successfully treat the person.

“We must take into consideration the strength and uniqueness of the person that will be used as part of the treatment planning to bring restoration and healing.”

What can someone do if he/she is feeling lonely? 

“Here are a few ways to ease the pain of loneliness:

  1.  Reach out and connect with a human friend
  2.  Seek relief by channeling the pain towards something that can bring comfort such as adopting a pet, doing something creative or perhaps volunteering at an organisation
  3.  Reconnect with yourself through self-love and self-compassion
  4.  Do not overreact. The left brain gets heightened and generally overanalyses things that can escalate to longer spells because of thoughts like, “Why do I struggle to connect with others?” and “Why do I always feel alone?”. When this happens, it is important to acknowledge the emotions without dwelling on such cognitive distortions
  5.  Occupy yourself with learning something new that you love and always desired to do at your own pace and in your own way
  6.  Take time to re-evaluate your life and your authenticity in this world
  7. Practice kindness and gratitude
  8. Get back to nature
  9. Cultivate self-respect by killing the negative self talk, and stop comparing yourself to others. This includes being loyal to yourself and do what you say you will do
  10.  Take care of your body by eating healthily and exercising regularly. When we feel better physically, our emotional well-being will also improve

“Psychotherapy or counselling can be beneficial through the safe and confidential space provided to explore the meaning and feeling loneliness personally has for you. Is is constant? Is it manageable? What happens to your body when you experience loneliness? What are the triggering factors to this emotion? How does loneliness impact your life? How have you been coping with loneliness? These explorative questions can take you deeper into your relationship with loneliness. It is profoundly taking a journey into the past in order to release the pain and misery to develop a new narrative and pattern lifestyle of relating to others.

“For those who struggle to engage holistically with others, psychotherapy or counseling can help develop and enhance social skills to manage your thoughts, emotions and actions during challenging times. Moreover, the relationship between the clinician and patient provides an opportunity to establish trust, safety and emotional support. This relational dynamic between the clinician and patient forms a building block for future connections. For others, the act of sharing their loneliness in itself can alleviate the feeling.

“Prolonged loneliness can lead to depression. If loneliness seem to be unbearable, defining your mood on a daily basis and interrupting daily activities it is important to seek professional help. Research has proven that loneliness activates the same part of the brain as physical pain.”

What are the tips that you can share to help people cope with feelings of loneliness during this trying time?

“At this moment, staying at home with limited human contact can trigger feelings of loneliness. Self-isolation limits a person from engaging with normal daily activities and routines.

“The effects of limited interaction can have an impact on our mood, if we do not find ways to maintain the connection needed or to be productively occupied. We have to adapt and get creative in restructuring our lives that best fits the current circumstance.

  • Maintain human connections as much as possible through virtual contact, whether it’s Zoom or FaceTime video calls
  • Keep to a schedule by structuring your day with a routine to maintain some sense of normalcy
  • Plan home-based activities and use this time productively
  • Look after yourself by staying active
  • Find resources to self-soothe and give yourself comfort i.e. read a book, focus on your pet, light scented candles, drink chamomile tea
  • Reconnect with yourself by asking, “How can I use this experience to appreciate myself more?”
  • Reconnect with your family members
  • Make your interest a priority by enjoying activities that you love and always desired to do at your own pace and in your own way
  • Get back to being creative—the creative process often involves making something, and it also has to power to remake our lives at this very moment
  • Create shared rituals—take this time spent together at home with your loved ones by establishing traditions and rituals of connection based on your marriage, or family’s goals, values, and interests
  • Date yourself (be cognizant of your thoughts, emotions and actions) and be faithful to your authentic self and not your fictional self (who the world, job, friends and family have told you or want you to be)

“We must remember that all emotions serve a purpose, and this includes loneliness. No matter how good or unpleasant it may be, our emotions are basically powerful and significant ‘messengers’ that signals something important we need to clearly pay attention to. It serves as an alert system informing you to take action to relieve the heartache that it is causing.

“Truth be told, your body is signalling to you that there is some kind of lack in your relationships, or there is a lack of satisfaction in other areas of your life that matters the most to you. It does not mean you are ‘abnormal,’ ‘weird,’ or ‘different’ just because you a feel a sense of loneliness. The truth is, you have more in common with the people around you than you realise. Nobody is immune from loneliness.

“Remember, your emotions are not something you have to control or manage. It is something upon which you could capitalise on. You could interpret and use, rather than experience it as irritation or annoyance that you believe must be ignored or controlled.”

Dr Christina Pillai provides individual, couple, marriage and family counselling. She works with a range of issues including couple relationships and communication, pre-marital, anger management, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. For more information, click here.

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