COVID-19 Is Coinciding With a Loneliness Epidemic

It’s critically important to foster connection during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The novel coronavirus pandemic demands social distancing, quarantine and isolation so that vulnerable individuals are not exposed to the virus and healthcare systems are not overwhelmed. Collectively, we understand the goodness of “flattening the curve.” Each of us must do our part to slow the spread of the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. But it is not the only epidemic we are facing right now. The requirement to separate ourselves from others comes at a time when America and many other nations are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness whose antidote is greater positive social connection. 

Our current situation—the simultaneous need to increase physical distance while also increasing social, or relational, connection to curb the rise in loneliness—presents a challenge for us all. Ignoring the need for connection at this time is not an option. Research suggests that the majority of individuals today lack sufficient social connection. This connection deficit may exacerbate the negative effects of stress and diminish physical and emotional resilience that people will need to fight the COVID-19 virus. 

Relational connection is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, there are steps people can take to boost social connection while maintaining physical distance. Individuals can still experience the physical and emotional health benefits that arise from sufficient meaningful connection, which will help them fare better through this difficult time. 

Emotional Health V. Public Health

Many nations are pushing measures to increase the physical distance between individuals to ensure those who are vulnerable are not exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Physical separation is also necessary to “flatten the curve” of exposures so health care systems have the capacity to treat infected individuals. 

Social distancing, quarantine and isolation all reduce the physical contact people have with others. Social distancing requires increasing the physical distance between individuals to reduce the risk that sick people infect healthy people through disease transmission. It requires canceling group events and closing public spaces, and maintaining a six-foot distance from other individuals. Quarantine is separating and restricting the movement of people who have been potentially or actually exposed to a contagious disease for a period of time to see if they become sick. Isolation is separating sick people who have a contagious disease from people who are not sick. From a physical health standpoint, these are important public health measures. From an emotional health standpoint, this separation runs the risk of increasing the negative feelings and resulting negative health outcomes associated with social isolation (being alone) and loneliness (feeling alone, even when surrounded by others). 

This call to be apart from others is occurring when many are already experiencing firsthand the effects of our growing epidemic of loneliness. Consistent with earlier research, the insurance company Cigna reported 2019 survey results that found three-fifths (61%) of Americans over the age of 18 are lonely and that loneliness continued to rise from its earlier study in 2018.  

Loneliness is problematic because it is associated with a host of negative outcomes including poorer cognitive performance, impaired executive control and self-regulation, lower levels of self-rated physical health, substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.  

According to research summarized in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, there is empirical evidence that loneliness may:

  • increase vulnerability to other stressors, 
  • cause a more intense reaction to negatives, 
  • reduce the emotional boost of positives, 
  • contribute to greater feelings of helplessness and threat, 
  • decrease sleep quality, and 
  • diminish willpower to exercise and eat healthy.

Loneliness affects our lifespan. Meta-analysis research has found that feeling lonely, being physically isolated or living alone were each associated with a risk of early death that was equal to or greater than the risk of early death from widely known risk factors including obesity and smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. 

Given the negative outcomes associated with social isolation and loneliness, it is not surprising that a recent review of studies on the psychological impact of quarantine reported negative outcomes including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger. The review noted that some researchers suggested the negative effects from quarantine could be long-lasting.  

A lack of sufficient connection is dangerous because social connection is a primal human need. Connection is also a “superpower” that, as the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, makes human beings smarter, happier and more productive. Meta-analysis research found a 50% greater likelihood of survival for the participants of studies who had stronger social relationships. Most important at this present time, social connection appears to improve the cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems’ performance, all of which could help people reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 and, if they contract it, provide them physical and emotional resources to fight the virus.        

Connecting While Maintaining Physical Isolation

We have been studying connection since 2002 and we’ve published two books about it, Fired Up or Burned Out and Connection Culture. Over the years we’ve learned that relational cultures tend to fall into three categories: cultures of control, cultures of indifference and cultures of connection. In cultures of control, the people with power, influence and status rule over others. Cultures of indifference are predominant today. In this type of culture, people are so busy with tasks that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships. In a connection culture, however, people care about others and invest the time to develop healthy relationships, reaching out to help others in need rather than being indifferent to them. In a connection culture, people are more likely to communicate, collaborate, cooperate and work together toward a common goal. And while our work has been focused on addressing and improving workplace cultures, the principles and frameworks are applicable to any group, be it a family, a committee for a civic group, a sports team, a governing body, even a nation.

To get through the COVID-19 pandemic, we need a connection culture that is rich in relational connection while maintaining physical distance between individuals when there is a risk of transmission. It’s important to understand that connection is essential because the lack of sufficient connection has a wide-ranging impact on our bodies, including increasing the negative effects of stress and diminishing resilience. 

Here are practical actions you can take: 

1. Cultivate a connection mindset. Boosting connection begins with adopting a mindset that connection is desirable and necessary. To help cultivate this mindset among the people you interact with, share this article with individuals in your social networks. 

2. Maintain an optimistic mindset. There is reason to be optimistic. China and South Korea seem to be past the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak in their respective countries. The U.S. and many other nations will get there too, and, in time, scientists will develop a vaccine. It’s extraordinary what people can accomplish when they pull together to serve a cause greater than themselves. For an example, watch Larry Brilliant’s inspiring TED Talk on the case for optimism in which he describes his experience as part of the multinational effort that eradicated smallpox.  

3. Take care of yourself. You can’t give what you don’t have. To be a good connector with others, we need to make sure we are physically and emotionally strong and steady. 

We do this by making sure we are connecting with people who energize us. Each day, schedule phone calls or video calls online with people you enjoy. Take virtual coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon while connecting on a video call. Schedule a call each evening with relatives and friends who may need connection. This is a good time to take the initiative and reconnect with friends from your childhood or college days who you may have lost touch with over the years.

Be sure to get adequate sleep and exercise (check out exercise videos on YouTube), and eat healthy. When we are stressed or lonely, these practices often get pushed aside. (Why make a salad when the potato chips are so handy?)

4. Cultivate practices that produce contentment and avoid excitatory practices. Constantly checking your smartphone, email or social media stimulates the production of dopamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter that in excessive amounts makes us anxious. (We want to stay current with the evolving situation but slowing the pace a bit would be better for our nerves.) Do one task at a time rather than multitasking. It’s preferable to focus on practices that produce the positive emotion of contentment because they stimulate the production of neurotransmitters including serotonin—things like engaging in conversation, painting or coloring, reading, assembling puzzles and playing games. To learn more, read “Addicted to Your Smartphone, To-do List or Busyness?” 

5. Get creative on how you might engage in activities with others. Have you seen the videos of spontaneous outdoor concerts as Italian neighbors stand on their city balconies and sing? We saw one video of a man in a public square leading exercises and people in a row of apartments joining him in doing jumping jacks. Our youngest daughter, a graduate student currently on lockdown in Madrid, and a few of the neighbors on her block have organized together-but-separate BINGO games to pass the time while travel is restricted. 

6. Pause to be grateful. Every day, take a few minutes to write down at least three things you are grateful for. Gratitude helps keep you emotionally strong and will help you connect better with others. 

7. Go for walks. If local authorities allow it, go for a walk each day to get fresh air and sunlight. Remember to maintain a six-foot separation from others. If possible, walk amongst nature. Even being in your own yard or walking your city block will help.

8. Play music. Throughout the day, play music you enjoy. Music has been found to calm anxiety. Have your own dance party (why not?).

9. Learn something new. Boredom is one risk of being physically isolated. Check out cultural institutions such as The Metropolitan Opera in New York City and museums (and even zoos) that are thinking outside of the box about how to virtually share their treasures with you. Learn more here

10. Set aside time each day for a quiet period. This may include contemplation, meditation, prayer and/or journaling. 

11. Never worry alone. Whenever you feel anxious or stressed, call up a friend and talk it through. Doing this will move your brain activity from the amygdala where threats are processed to the cortex where we make rational decisions.

12. Serve others. Reaching out to help others in need boosts neurochemicals that produce positive emotions. In the current climate of encouraging physical separation, this may include writing a card or letter to an isolated elderly parent, relative or friend, or calling to find out how he or she is doing. Check out local or national non-profit organizations that serve populations in need and see how you can help safely. Anything you can do to help others meet their need for connection also helps you. There is satisfaction, even joy, to be found in serving a cause greater than self. 

This unusual season we are in is temporary but it will be difficult and last longer than we’d like. We will face individual and societal challenges that we have not faced before. It’s important that you recognize that disconnection is a super-stressor; it makes other stressors feel even heavier and it weakens the effectiveness of any resiliency practices you may be using. As humans, we are hardwired to connect; we are drawn to “doing life together”—talking through our issues; learning from each other; being encouraged, corrected and motivated by those around us. Now is not the time to have little or no meaningful connection in your life. 

By intentionally boosting our “superpower” of connection, while still maintaining physical separation, we will make a meaningful difference in the lives of others; lift our own spirits as we lift the spirits of our family members, friends and community; and bring out “the better angels of our nature.” In harnessing the power of connection as we combat COVID-19, we will be combating the epidemic of loneliness as well. By taking on this challenge together, we will walk through this season to a brighter future. 

Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of "Connection Culture" and "Fired Up or Burned Out." Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to “Connection Culture.” You may listen to a narration of this article by Spokn.