Living alone during the coronavirus crisis
By: Kattey Ortiz, Digital Producer
Before the pandemic, it's a safe bet that many of us didn't think twice about our daily routines. We were at home, we were at work, we were going to the store, we were getting that workout in at the gym -- an endless loop that fed our social interaction meters in one way or another, and an especially helpful one for those who live alone.
Now, those who live alone are finding that they will be physically alone for a long time. As Durham University’s Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen told Time Magazine, "We’re used to social interaction. It facilitates cooperation and closeness.”
Amanda Pustz, a high school social studies teacher living alone in Madison, WI, is devastated.
"The idea of not finishing up the school year in the classroom feels just really awful," she said. "This whole emotional connection you have with kids that you develop over the course of the year, it's all of a sudden severed. And I think that kind of feeds my sense of isolation."
Pustz is used to a busy and active schedule. Roughly 50 hours of her week are spent at school, with as many as 30 additional hours dedicated to campaigning for local elections.
With any sort of familiar routine off the table, Pustz finds her mind wandering more than ever.
"I feel like there's a wave that happens throughout the day," she says. "I wake up. I have a list of things I want to accomplish and I get started on that. Some point during the day I think, 'Oh my God, I'm in the middle of a pandemic.' Like, it hits me again. Whether I see some news alert, or somebody texts me something, I'm right back thinking about that. Then I struggle to get some sort of productivity."
So, what to do when that loneliness creeps up on you? The obvious choice is to pick up the phone. Call a friend. Phone your parents. Reach out to your neighbors from a distance.
Yet, not everyone is so lucky to have people to turn to, even if it's to hear their voices. According to the Guardian, experts say isolation increases the risk of premature death in the long-term.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University, told the Guardian that people who are more socially connected show less inflammation.
"Conversely, people who are more isolated and lonely show increased chronic inflammation," she said. "Chronic inflammation has been implicated in a variety of chronic diseases."
She added that “loneliness increases earlier death by 26%, social isolation by 29% and living alone by 32%.”
"I think this is where it's important to sort of think about about your personal coping mechanisms," says Pustz. "One of the things I started to do, and I think it's partly the historian in me -- (I) jot down notes about what I did today. Not because I think that really matters, but if I'm going to tell this story in 25, 50 years, how are people really going to understand what it was like unless we somehow document it?"
Of course, writing our feelings does a lot more for oneself than the greater good.
"It's also a way of getting off my chest," added Pustz. "I'm fulfilling that societal need that we will have, but also, I'm kind of releasing it."
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline knows COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the mental health of Americans.
"Feeling anxious, confused, overwhelmed or powerless is common during an infectious disease outbreak, especially in the face of a virus with which the general public may be unfamiliar," according to their website. "These feelings of distress and anxiety can occur even if you are not at high risk of getting sick."
Here are some tips from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for those who feel emotionally distressed:
- Set a limit on media consumption, including social media, local or national news.
- Stay active. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest. Stay hydrated and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol. Eat healthy foods when possible.
- Connect with loved ones and others who may be experiencing stress about the outbreak. Talk about your feelings and enjoy conversation unrelated to the outbreak.
- If you’re experiencing emotional distress related to COVID-19, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or your local crisis line.
- For coping tools and resources, visit the Lifeline website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or Vibrant Emotional Health’s Safe Space at vibrant.org/safespace.
Speaking to their mental health mission, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle called on the public to help in an Instagram post:
"For the other people who are living alone," Pustz says, "You're not ... Reach out to people. You don't have to be alone that way. And I think people will understand that it's a little harder when you are alone. Those fears creep up more frequently or intensely."
If you feel you or someone you know may need emotional support, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org for helpful resources or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline is free, confidential, and available to everyone in the U.S. You do not have to be suicidal to call the Lifeline.