KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already declared that loneliness was an epidemic in the United States.
Mental health experts now report that the coronavirus pandemic, and the stay-at-home orders it brought, have left even more people are battling loneliness as they are physically separated from family and friends and loved ones — unable to hug, visit or enjoy a meal with loved ones.
Dr. Robynne Lute — a licensed clinical psychologist, who serves as director of clinical psychology training and an assistant professor of health service psychology at Kansas City University, said that loneliness is normal and there are some simple things you can do to feel better when you're feeling sad or anxious about being socially disconnected.
To minimize the impact of loneliness, she suggests:
- Spending more with pets
- Wrapping up in a warm cozy blanket
- Taking a warm bath with essential oils or another fragrance to engage your sense of smell and trigger the release same immune-boosting hormones activated by touch
- Start writing a journal about your life, the joys and challenges
- Intentionally look for and talk about reasons you are grateful
- Get lost in a puzzle, movie or a good book
They're helpful tips for Akyra Whitmill, a graduating senior at Raytown High School whose milestone year didn't quite go as she expected.
"We just thought it was going to be the best year and then, boom, COVID 19," Whitmill said.
She grew up with a strong connection to family and community, but was suddenly disconnected from both by the pandemic.
"You can't hug people," Whitmill said. "I want to hug my grandpa so bad. I can't hug my grandpa and it's really weird."
The same disconnect is occuring to people in nursing homes, where family and friends are barred from visiting due to the vulnerability of the elderly population to COVID-19.
People also are burying loved ones, often unable to be embraced and be comforted by extended family.
There are also first responders on the frontline during the day, who are often forced to live in a separate room from family at night in their own homes to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
Lute said the disconnect and physical separation often manifests as a mental health issue.
"In many ways, a lot of us are dealing with pretty profound grief on a day-to-day, basis even if we don't identify it as such," she said.
Lute said togetherness and touching used to be a routine part of daily life. Now that it's not, she explained that the loneliness can trigger anxiety and stress.
"Although it's challenging right now, remembering to be grateful or trying to track gratitude is always helpful for our mood." she said.
Whitmill can't see her brothers right now, so she finds herself calling them often.
"They probably get mad at me calling them so much," she said with a laugh.
Whitmill's also remaining positive as she waits for the day when the COVID-19 threat is history and she can hug her family and friends again.
"The hugs are going to mean way more," she said. "I feel like the first hugs are going to be longer than what they usually are. It's like, what do they say, never take what you have for granted."