Too much alone time? Tips to connect and find joy while social distancing

  • By Allison Aubrey/NPR

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We are social creatures. So it’s no surprise that quarantine fatigue has begun to set in.

“Humans are wired to come together physically,” says psychologist Judith Moskowitzof Northwestern University. But, loneliness has become widespread in modern life. And, social distancing has just exacerbated the problem,” Moskowitz says.

Finding ways to connect is essential to our well-being, since prolonged isolation can increase the risk of depression and anxiety, says Dr. Sandro Galea of Boston University’s School of Public Health. “We know from other events, the longer the isolation, the more risk,” Galea says.

Social distancing recommendations will remain in place for months to come, and until there’s a vaccine, limits on big gatherings will likely continue. For the elderly or those who live alone, the isolation can be particularly grueling. But, people are finding new ways to interact with each other, even under extraordinary circumstances. Here are some strategies to connect with others.

Note: If you’re feeling persistent sadness or anxiety that interferes with day-to-day life, consider seeing a therapist (which you can do online, too).

1. Don’t scroll, but do connect online, with real-time activities

When it comes to our emotional health, social media platforms can be a double-edged sword. Simply scrolling through a Facebook, TikTok or Instagram feed may not help you connect with other people in a meaningful way.

So instead of cultivating that empty FOMO (fear of missing out) feeling, use the power of virtual platforms to connect more intentionally, more deeply.

Start by asking yourself: What matters to you? Do you have a hobby you’d like to resurrect, or take up for the first time? A whole world of online, live-streamed classes has opened up, from ceramics to languages to bread-making. Always wanted to play the banjo? “Find a banjo class,” says Judith Moskowitz, a psychologists at Northwestern University.

The face-to-face, real time connections allow us to pick up on facial expressions and body language to better simulate real-world gatherings. A live, synchronous class, Moskowitz says, “is one way to get to know people and to broaden your social network.”

Outside of classes, if you use social media to stay in touch with friends, instead of just commenting on posts, make the effort to interact one-on-one, says Joe Walther, who directs the Center for Information Technology & Society at the University of California Santa Barbara. “It’s the intimacy of the messages, and the depth of the interactive conversation that will sustain us,” he says.

2. Making art is a social act: Express yourself and share.

Looking for a place to connect with others who use art to express themselves? The UnLonely Project has created a community through its Stuck At Home Together initiative. You can watch a short film, then participate in an online conversation. You can view others’ art or share your own. And for motivation to get started, the group has designed creative challenges, like crafting a self-portrait from objects around the house.

The group behind these initiatives includes physicians and researchers who document how the creative processes can help people maintain good health and fend off disease. “When you make art, you are in the moment — you are with [your] thoughts and feelings,” says Jeremy Nobel, who founded the program and is also on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

And by sharing what you create, it’s as if you’re sharing a “representation of your thoughts and feelings, whether it’s a painting, a poem, a baked good, or a garden,” Nobel says.

He says loneliness isn’t just about lacking companionship. “Often loneliness starts with a sense of estrangement or disconnection from who you are. How do you fit into the world?” Nobel says.

Art can be very powerful for centering and positioning — a way to explore your own identity. “And I actually believe for many people, that’s an essential first step to connecting with other people in an authentic way,” Nobel says.

3. Reach out to the elderly

For many elderly people, social distancing has brought layers of challenges. “It’s not just the lack of contact with others,” says physician Kelli Tice Wells who is a senior medical director at health insurer Florida Blue. It’s also “not being able to navigate things that can be critical to your life” such as on-line grocery shopping or getting prescriptions, Wells says.

Florida Blue now offers virtual companionship and assistance to seniors through a program called Papa Pals, which matches elderly adults with younger people, who are paid to provide assistance.

Miriam Membreno, of Miami, Fla., who is trained as a social worker, recently started working as a Papa Pal, after her hours at her regular job were cut short. She meets with a few elderly people virtually.

“I do feel like I’m helping them be less lonely,” Membreno says. She says sometimes they just want to share stories, and she likes to listen. Other times, during a virtual visit, she says, they share worries that they have bottled up. “Just having those stress and concerns released,” is worthwhile, she says.

Another program for seniors, Live a Dream, collects video montages to brighten a senior’s day. Young people can submit a short video to share. You can tell a joke, play an instrument, or just give some encouraging words.

There are numerous efforts to connect elderly people in senior living facilities with younger people around the country. Check with local groups to find one where you live.

4. Become a citizen-scholar, a online tutor, or assistant to the visually impaired: Find your way to volunteer, virtually

As many community organizations struggle to keep up with rising needs and shrinking budgets, volunteer options — even contactless ones — abound.

Does the idea of becoming a citizen scholar sound intriguing? The Smithsonian hasdigital volunteer opportunities. For instance, “citizen scholars are invited to transcribe historic documents including diaries and working papers of prominent Americans,” according to the Smithsonian website. To get involved, you can check out the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

Or, you could help people with low-vision, a program called Be My Eyes, is an app that connects people who are blind or have low-vision with volunteers who offer virtual assistance.

VolunteerMatch, a database of volunteer opportunities has a searchable site for virtual volunteering, with thousands of postings around the country, calling for all kinds of skills from tutoring kids to making face masks. Find more options on Idealist.org.

5. Keep friendships alive, with small acts of kindness

Sometimes, a small gesture can help you reconnect. Even though we can’t bake together, think about dropping off some cookies to a friend. Ask your neighbor if you can pick up some grocery items for them on your next trip. Organize a puzzle or game swap.

During these strange and difficult times, “you can feel like you’re really depleted and you have nothing to give,” says Judith Moskowitz. “But just a simple act of helping someone else out comes back and bolsters you as well,” she says. An act of kindness can lift our spirits. “And that really feels good.”

Look for creative ways to nourish your friendships, like working through a cookbook together, or watching movies together, suggests Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. And don’t miss the opportunity for small touch points throughout the day: Even sharing a joke over text can make you feel less alone, she says.

“Friendship is critical in times of stress — that’s what friendship is for,” Denworth says.

Elena Renken contributed to this report.

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