Living alone during lockdown can put a huge strain on your mental health. More than a quarter of Brits are feeling lonely in lockdown, according to a recent survey by UK charity, the Mental Health Foundation.
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And with no clear end to the pandemic in sight, keeping our spirits up feels like a full-time job.
Clinical psychologist Dr Kate Mason says: “We’re social creatures by nature and that goes back to caveman times when we did things in groups for survival – hunting for food, finding mates and avoiding predators.
“Being social is instinctual, and having no physical contact is denying the brain something it has deemed vital since the dawn of man.
“Studies have shown the brain of a socially-isolated person displays activity similar to a person experiencing physical pain, like severe hunger.
“Being lonely literally physically hurts, so it’s no wonder people are struggling with this prolonged period of isolation.”
Dr Mason adds: “Our interactions with others shape our ideas and boost our self-worth.
“We like to be liked and having social contact is a key prompt for our bodies to release the ‘cuddle’ hormone, oxytocin.
“Being alone for many weeks will send us into a chemical lull, with reduced serotonin and dopamine – the ‘happy’ and ‘pleasure’ hormones. A reduction in these during lockdown will lead to feeling depressed, low and listless.”
Dr Mason says long periods of isolation can also cause people to feel emotionally flat – and lacking in motivation may be a key sign you’re struggling.
Here she shares some simple tips to help you cope with enduring lockdown in isolation.
1. Keep active
It might seem obvious, but getting out for a daily, hour-long walk is very beneficial.
I always tell parents I work with, whose children are climbing the walls, to take them for a walk.
The swinging of your arms as you go helps to emotionally regulate and calm your mind. You can plug in your headphones to listen to music or talk to someone on the phone and offload. Sometimes it’s easier to be honest about your feelings when you don’t have to look the person in the eye.
2. Set a routine
Plan your days – such as always having a shower first thing. Set tasks, such as a midday walk, to help break up the time.
If you can’t manage a walk, make sure you sit by an open window and get some fresh air or take a stroll around the garden.
You can also try small creative projects, such as a wordsearch or jigsaw – anything that will get you out of that dark space.
3. Learn something new
Areas of the brain that release dopamine when we’re happy are also stimulated by learning something new.
The sense of mastery you feel when you conquer a new skill is great for boosting your mental and physical wellbeing.
This doesn’t just have to be learning a new language or mastering a musical instrument, it could be something as simple as learning a new dance on YouTube.
You’ll have fun and interact online with others, alleviating the loneliness for a while.
4. Embrace technology
Social media gets a bad rep but it can be a lifeline in lockdown. If you can, get online and interact with others – join in some conversations and see where they take you.
You might just discover a whole community of kind, funny and interesting people to chat to.
Try video calls to see your loved ones’ faces too.
If that feels like too much, start with texting, then voice calls. You can also go back to basics, writing letters to loved ones, or even yourself.
It is very therapeutic to put your feelings down on paper.
5. Coping without hugs
Physical contact is hard to replace, but you can still induce some positive chemical reactions in your brain by creating nice physical sensations for your body.
It could be a warm bath or the scent of an aromatherapy oil diffuser or plug-in air freshener.
Or treat yourself to something you wouldn’t normally buy, such as a luxurious face mask, or some decadent dark chocolate.
All of these things will release your happy hormones – serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin – and boost your wellbeing.
There isn’t a magical solution to alleviating loneliness, but embracing anything that gives you pleasure, even if it’s short-lived (such as an orgasm) will help.
6. Pet your pet
If you have a pet, spend lots of time petting, caring or walking them.
7. Turn to music
The main thing you can do to lift yourself out of this difficult headspace is to get your natural feel-good hormones pumping. Try listening to music and singing out loud – enjoy a tune that brings back memories of good times, or find a new album you like.
8. Look forward
There is a lot to feel uncertain about at the moment and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the loss of control over our lives.
But what we can do is make plans for when the lockdown shifts or lifts, including which loved ones you’d like to see first, and what you’d like to do with them.
If that feels too hard when you’re missing them so much, you can simply make short-term plans with yourself for the evening ahead – e.g. when I’ve finished work, I’ll get into my pyjamas early, have a glass of wine and watch my favourite film.
9. Eat well
It’s easy to reach for convenience foods, but putting the right nutrition in our body is important.
Good nutrition and hygiene are some of the first things to go if you’re struggling emotionally, so make an effort with both. It’s amazing what cooking a nice meal for yourself can do for you.
Don’t drink too much alcohol as it’s a depressant – but do drink enough water to stay hydrated.