It was an ordinary wintry January Monday in Cape May County, and our three concrete front steps had iced over from freezing rain that whipped across the marshlands.
I held the handrail so that our two vivacious Portuguese water dogs could not take me with them as they headed for their cold, damp grassy bathroom. As I watched their expressive brown eyes following me, I felt a deep love and appreciation for their presence.
For the last 10 months and 11 days, we have been waiting out the pandemic from our home near the Wetlands Institute. My husband, John, and I relish the ability to hunker down in our cottage more safely than we could at Rittenhouse Square, in Philadelphia, and in these months, I have come to love winter beach walks, with one or both fuzzy dogs jogging next to me.
I trained them to run to me when I call them, even if they are on a beach with spots smelling like dead seagulls. They never tire of an enjoyable beach run that includes a knee-high run in an ocean, too, something that's cold for most humans.
To mitigate the loneliness of these long months, I set up regular calls with friends, but even this privilege sometimes leaves me feeling lonely.
I hear loneliness from my clients. In our combined efforts to stay safe and save lives, our usual ways of seeing family, friends and familiar faces have been paused, but we can combat loneliness and social isolation if we arrange ways a bit in advance. There are several well-loved ways to joins while remaining solo, in a safe location:
Try calling a friend, family member, health professional or counselor to talk about your feelings.
Join an online group or class that focuses on something you enjoy – that could be anything from an online exercise class, book club, etc.
Take a beach or boardwalk stroll in winter, and achieve a distance that you are proud of - for example, the dogs and I walk 10 blocks on the beach, then turn around and walk 10 more blocks back to our parked car.
This is a challenging and sometimes lonely time, but it will pass. There will be many hugs, shared pots of tea, parties and celebrations in the future. For now, let’s be as kind as possible to ourselves and others.
Many of us feel lonely occasionally, and these short-term feelings shouldn’t harm our mental health. However, the more the pandemic prolongs, the more these feelings become long-term.
Long-term loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and increased stress, and managing these can be challenging.
How can we prevent loneliness?
We have had to rely on technology a lot more for communication throughout 2020 and now in 2021. While it has been a valuable tool, many might feel exhausted by online quizzes or experience "Zoom fatigue." However, staying connected to friends and family is vital to protect our mental health.
If you are feeling burned out from the ways you connect with people, try out some new ways in 2021. For example, switching back to voice calls might be more appealing if you use video calls for work. Sending a text or voice note to someone if a call is too much maintains connection and allows people to know you’re thinking of them.
Remember, no one is exempt from feeling lonely at times. All of us at some point or other during this coronavirus pandemic will feel cut off from our loved ones. However, some of us will have more access to technology than others, or more social connections.
By caring for each other, checking in on people who are more isolated, or even volunteering for a helpline, we can help prevent a loneliness epidemic.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.