It’s no exaggeration to say Easter has been very different this year.
Traditionally it’s a time for catching up with family and friends, going to church, enjoying lavish meals based on seafood and lamb, and perhaps an Easter egg hunt in the park with the littlies.
But with social distancing rules putting paid to almost all of that, it’s been a pared-down Easter for most.
If you’re missing catching up with loved ones and feeling particularly alone at the moment, you’re not the only one.
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Experts say loneliness is on the increase as COVID-19 precautions take their toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
The good news is there are many things you can do to stay connected.
Large family gatherings may be off the Easter agenda this year, but there are ways to stay connected. (Unsplash: Gor Davlyan)
Michelle Lim, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University, is helping conduct a global study on the impact of loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Lim is an expert in loneliness — she’s also head of the university’s Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory, which was set up to understand how loneliness and lack of social connections influence health, and she’s the chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness scientific advisory committee.
Is loneliness worse for young people?
The current situation with coronavirus is beyond our control, and Dr Lim says that could be making things worse.
“Previously, people could say, ‘I’d rather be alone,’ and be happy in making that choice — but this is different, we’re kind of forced into it,” she said.
Loneliness can be particularly acute for young people, who need more social connections than older people, who typically have a smaller social circle as they age.
“Loneliness is a result of feeling your relationships are not what they should be,” Dr Lim said.
“Young people have high expectations and very different social needs.”
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Technology doesn’t necessarily help
And just because young people are more tech-savvy and connecting more online, it doesn’t mean they’re meeting their need for deep connection.
“They are definitely more comfortable with online social interactions, but what we don’t know is whether social media platforms actually enhance our relationships or simply help us stay connected,” Dr Lim said.
Dr Lim says loneliness is a perception your relationships are not what they should be. (Supplied: Michelle Lim)
“You can be gaming or using Zoom — but you’re not necessarily saying anything of value. You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and still be lonely.
“So you can use tech to reduce social isolation, but do you really reduce loneliness?”
But everyone’s different, Dr Lim says. While some people may get a buzz out of a friendly hello and a chat with neighbours, for others “it’s just small talk and not relevant to their feelings of isolation and loneliness”.
What about people who live alone?
Dr Lim says research shows people who live alone make more of an effort to stay connected with others.
“Often their lives are richer because they are more resourceful, and they have much more extensive networks of friends,” she said.
This may mean that they are better equipped to handle the social isolation imposed by the new pandemic reality than others.
Dr Lim’s tips to combat loneliness:
- Remember that these are unusual circumstances. And if you never felt lonely before and you do now, that is normal. You will have to make an effort to connect. This means making the time and being flexible with what you can do in your current circumstance.
- Focus on meaningful social interactions as opposed to interacting for the sake of doing so. Making it count by building on people’s conversations. And even if you are feeling lonely, you can still support others who are struggling.
- Identify your resources and think about how and when you can use them. Resources can include people who you can call on to help, or using technology to connect.
Lesley Brookes has lived on her own for the past 10 years and has been self-isolating for nearly a month in her Sydney home because her chronic heart condition and age put her in a high-risk category for coronavirus.
Developing strategies to combat loneliness has been particularly important for her.
These include having professional psychological support available when she needs it, and maintaining her connection to her friends and neighbours, even those to whom she has not been especially close.
Taking pleasure in simple things
Being unable to leave her home, Ms Brookes has been taking pleasure from looking out from her balcony and watching familiar faces from her neighbourhood pass by on the street or in the park opposite.
Lesley Brookes has been self-isolating alone in her Sydney apartment for nearly a month, but she has developed strategies to cope. (Supplied: Lesley Brookes)
Neighbours have been dropping off groceries and other essentials, and she has weekly contact with her personal trainer online. Her fitness routine currently includes running up and down her hallway, and doing push-ups against the window.
Other things that have helped her are having online drinks with a neighbour on a Friday night, joining an online book club, and talking to people on the phone.
“People are really consciously reaching out — I’ve heard from probably 10 people in the last week or so that I haven’t heard from in three months,” she said.
She recommends making it easy to do the things you enjoy by writing a list of them: “So when you’re low on emotional energy, you don’t have to do the hard work of coming up with something.”
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Flexibility can be key
Loneliness can be particularly acute at times like Easter, when you may not be able to be with those you traditionally spend time with.
Dr Lim says the key lies in being flexible.
“Use the phone if you don’t want to use technology — no-one says you have to use Zoom or Facetime if you’re not comfortable with it.”
There are other ways to connect if you don’t want to or are unable to use technology. (ABC News: Natasha Johnson)
If it is allowed under your state or territory’s rules, drop off some food to family, friends or neighbours, and use it as an opportunity for a 5 or 10-minute, appropriately socially-distanced chat.
“It’s important to adhere to public health recommendations, but think of ways to maintain the quality of your relationships through safe means,” Dr Lim said.
She is hoping the Global Survey of Health and Wellbeing will help identify how prolonged self-isolation affects people in the long term, and offer evidence-based recommendations to help people who are feeling lonely.
Black Dog Institute tips to stay connected:
- Be creative about trying new ways to connect
- If socialising helps your mood, schedule a virtual coffee with a friend each day
- If going to the gym or yoga helps you reduce stress, try an online class
- If you love to sing and dance, join a virtual choir or dance group
- If you don’t want to use virtual connection, try calling a friend or sending letters
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