Want to learn how to best handle social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic? BYU psychology professor Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg held a Q&A on Facebook Live on April 9th. Holt-Lunstad is a world-renowned expert on social connection and isolation, and her work has been recognized in major media outlets, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Sandberg and Holt-Lunstad addressed critical issues pertaining to the pandemic and loneliness, including who is at risk for social isolation, how to stay socially connected while physically apart, and how to best reach out to others at this time.
Who’s at Risk? And the Effects of Social Isolation
Holt-Lunstad explained that while anyone in any demographic is at risk of being lonely, there are some risk factors that could increase one’s chances of experiencing social isolation, including if an individual has poor quality relationships, is a member of a stigmatized group, lives alone, or has other adverse physical or mental health conditions. Holt-Lunstad added that the effects of loneliness include a negative impact on one’s physical and cognitive health. In fact, Holt-Lunstad said that “loneliness is a biological drive like hunger or thirst,” so the distress that one feels one when is lonely is normal. “It’s your body saying that you need to re-connect,” explains Holt-Lunstad, “we are social beings and we need others for survival.” While the effects of social isolation are adverse, Holt-Lunstad says that social connection increases one’s odd for survival by 50%.
How to Stay Connected During COVID-19
If social connection is so critical for our health, what can we do to stay connected to each other during the COVID-19 pandemic? Holt-Lunstad stressed the importance of following the health mandate to social distance (if possible in one’s situation), while finding creative ways to stay connected:
- Make sure that the time you do have together with your loved ones is quality time
- When possible, have face to face conversations that are safe (for example, talking to your neighbor in the driveway when he is on his porch)
- Text, call, and have video chats with family and friends
- Be flexible when technology has its glitches
Sandberg offered additional ideas to stay socially connected and how to best reach out to others at this time:
- When you are feeling lonely, reach out to someone else who is probably feeling lonelier
- Let people know that you are here for them if they want to talk
- Be honest about how you are feeling (recognize that you are glad to be safe but admit that social distancing is challenging)
Holt-Lunstad agreed that it is crucial to “reach out to others” and to recognize that feeling lonely is normal. For teens, being socially isolated can be especially challenging. Holt-Lunstad said “being open with your kids about how they are feeling can be really important” and “encourage[ing] ways where they can still connect to their friends and grandparents” can be helpful as well. Also, for those who are reluctant to admit they are lonely, Holt-Lunstad says that is it vital to recognize that social connection is a continuum and we are all somewhere on the spectrum, in need of social interaction.
Gratitude and Other Tips to Combat Loneliness
In addition to staying socially connected to others, Holt-Lunstad and Sandberg shared how we can best deal with the situation of being isolated from one another. Holt-Lunstad suggested the following ideas:
- How you focus your mindset matters. Instead of thinking, “I’m trapped at home,” say to yourself, “I’m doing this to protect the ones I love.”
- Practice mindfulness-based meditation.
- Participate in creative expression (engage in music, cooking, writing, etc).
- Show gratitude- it increases social bonding and decreases feelings of loneliness.
Sandberg also emphasized the importance of gratitude, sharing that at their dinner table, her family now shares a “silver lining” moment along with their day’s highs and lows. Sandberg speculated that all of these challenges from COVID-19 may result in us being more grateful, saying, “maybe this is all giving us more appreciation for social connection. Think about the last time you went to a restaurant or hugged a friend, how grateful were you?” Holt-Lunstad agrees that the pandemic could cause us to be more grateful. She shared: “I’m an optimist. I nearly lost my husband to cancer…birthdays are a privilege. I hope what comes from this otherwise awful situation is a greater appreciation for our relationships and for the simple things in life and that we can learn and grow and become stronger from this.” To watch the entire Q&A, click here.