Tips to manage loneliness, anxiety while social distancing during coronavirus

(NEW YORK) — As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, Americans are being urged to stay home and practice social distancing to help “flatten the curve” or slow the spread of the outbreak.

In a growing number of states across the country, that means all non-essential businesses are closed, all non-essential gatherings canceled, and millions of citizens are limiting their interactions with one another — essentially a full stop on daily life as we know it.

And while all of this is for the greater good, the isolation can take a toll. Feelings of loneliness can have a negative impact on mental and physical health, and can exacerbate anxiety and depression, according to the American Psychological Association.

“When we have to be physically separate, it’s so easy not to feel nurtured,” said psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach.

Keeping up with social connections is crucial right now to fend off feelings of loneliness and anxiety, which can be heightened amid the global pandemic.

“When we use the words ‘social distancing,’ we’re giving the false impression that we’re telling people not to socialize,” said Patricia Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, whose work focuses on mindfulness in the classroom. “We really need to socialize. We’re very very social animals.”

Both professionals recognize the health crisis as a period of anxiety, fear and uncertainty, one that might be particularly difficult for those who live alone or who experience feelings of loneliness. Jennings and Brach shared six mindfulness tips with ABC News’ Good Morning America for coping with isolation while practicing social distancing.

Tips to stay connected

1. Find new ways to connect with people.
Jennings emphasizes the importance of maintaining contact with others, particularly for those who live on their own. Call family members, Facetime friends and connect with online communities.

2. Try to connect with at least three people a day.
This can be as simple as a text to check-in or a phone call, but Brach encourages setting a target of speaking with three people a day, or keeping up your normal level of conversation and activity.

3. Invite friends to try an activity together. If you’re hunkered down at home, get creative “so that it feels like you’re interacting with people in a novel way,” Jennings said. Explore video conferencing platforms like Google Hangouts or Zoom and invite a group to do an activity together. Play a group game, host a virtual dinner party or a virtual book club.

Tips to combat anxiety

1. Take the extra time to take care of yourself in ways that you might not usually get the chance to. Jennings suggests taking advantage of the extra time you may find to practice self-care like catching an extra hour of sleep. Try thinking of uplifting affirmations, or imagine someone else saying them to you.

2. Focus on your breathing. Practice a simple low-maintenance meditation technique. Exercise mindfulness, with no materials or equipment necessary by concentrating on your breathing. Jennings says to start by taking a few slow deep breaths, while focusing on the sensation as the air goes into your nostrils, and down your lungs. “Those deep belly breaths with mindful awareness, can be incredibly powerful,” Jennings said. Brach reiterates the benefits of relaxing the body and quieting the mind while steadying breathing.

3. Practice “body scanning.” Lie down and direct your thinking away from your anxieties and focus your attention on different parts of the body one by one, Jennings instructs. “If you’re ruminating a lot, you’re feeling particularly anxious, bringing the awareness into the body can really help people calm down,” Jennings said. For beginners, many meditation apps feature body scanning, and guide users through the steps.

4. Spend time in nature. If you can safely take a solitary walk while practicing social distancing, Brach recommends bringing yourself into nature. “We start feeling our belonging to the natural world and that really lifts up spirits,” she said.

5. Cultivate feelings of gratitude.
Savor the little moments in your daily life that you enjoy and make you grateful amidst the stress. Appreciating positive feelings can be beneficial to the nervous system, Jennings said. “In the midst of all this, you have a moment with your child, a moment with your partner, where you’re having fun, where there’s something light,” she said.

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