The lockdown has disrupted routines and confined people to one space, which can make them feel lonely or exacerbate existing feelings of the same.

Lonely during lockdown What isolation is doing to people and how to copeImage for representation. rajastills/Picxy
Delve Mental health Saturday, April 04, 2020 - 16:22

“We tend to crave something the moment we’re told we can’t do it. It is human nature,” says Tushar*, who works in a media company, and lives on his own in Delhi. While he has never been much of an extrovert or outdoorsy, and would generally hang out at home most of the time he wasn’t working, the 21-day lockdown has exacerbated his feelings of loneliness.

“Earlier, there was going to work, seeing a few friendly faces, banter. With the lockdown, there have been entire days where I haven't said a single word out loud,” he tells TNM. “The weekends have been pretty bad sometimes. There's nothing to catch me if I spiral.”

A number of people across the globe are bound to experience what Tushar is. Humans aren’t meant to be in isolation – we have always been social beings. One may argue that those who have access to a smartphone and internet, staying connected should not be a problem. However, these ways of socializing merely supplement our need for connection; they don't fulfil it. They cannot replace a hug, a reassuring hand on your shoulder, intimacy, or the myriad of ways humans communicate non-verbally.

While the lockdown and social distancing (an oxymoron, if you think of it) are crucial to slow down the spread of COVID-19, these measures are having several mental health implications as well. And one of them is loneliness, which can not only affect your mental health, but your physical health, and over a period of time, your mortality too.

Loneliness is not the same as being alone

Loneliness is not just feeling alone because you don’t have anyone around you, says Prarthana Sham, a therapist with Bengaluru-based Alternative Story. “You can also feel lonely if you are surrounded by people but they aren’t those that you can talk to,” she says. Tushar, for instance, says that he would have felt lonely even if he had gone back home to his parents’ as he can’t talk to them.

The LGBTQIA+ community has long been affected by loneliness that is a result of social isolation and rejection. During the lockdown, it can be particularly hard for those who are not yet out to their families but are now forced to live with them due to the circumstances.

For instance, Sherlin Jose, a 20-year-old had earlier told TNM that it can be really hard to be transgender, and live with an unsupportive family. “You have to hide who you are constantly, hide your feelings, your gender. Many families can turn violent if they find out,” she had said. Sherlin was shunned by her family when she came out as transgender.

Mahesh Natarajan, a counselor at Innersight, says that for many LGBTQIA+ people, the isolation right now can be especially difficult if they are not in safe spaces. “They are a lot more anxious about being found out, thrown out, denied facilities and spaces. The inability to go to physical, safe queer spaces and hangouts is also particularly hard for them,” he tells TNM.

Further, people tend to be a lot more observant when they are cooped up together for days together. “Earlier, a queer person who’s not out to their family could step out, go to work, meet with friends and be themselves. But now, they don’t have that option, which makes the scrutiny on their behaviour and their own anxiety about passing as cisgender or heteronormative much higher. And this anxiety and loss of expression is a very isolating and lonely experience,” Mahesh adds.

Exacerbation of existing sentiments

For some people, the lockdown has exacerbated existing feelings of loneliness. Smitha*, a 32-year-old writer, has been living alone for a few years now. Her husband travels a lot for work, so the self-proclaimed workaholic would often spend more time at office than going back home so that she didn’t have to come back to an empty home.

“Now that I am working from home, I find myself sitting in front of the laptop, working or reading articles more, just to get away from the feeling of loneliness during the lockdown. At the end of the day, I still wish I had my husband or someone else in the house to distract me. I’ve been working from home for three weeks now and am just wearied by the same pattern every day. I am gradually losing the inspiration to work,” she says.

While Smitha’s cat does provide her with some companionship, it can get overwhelming to care for her pet all on her own. “If you do not have another person in the house to share chores like cooking, taking the trash out, ordering groceries and cleaning, it gets dreary on any given day. It is exasperating during a time like this (lockdown),” she says.

Prarthana says that for many people, the feeling of loneliness can also be born out of a person’s coping mechanisms being taken away. “The inability to do activities that one might otherwise do to cope – not just socializing, but also shopping, going out for a meal, going to the gym or work and so on. Now, in a lockdown, there are only so many ways a person can repurpose a space,” she says.

An unexpected challenge

While Smitha has always hated living alone and the loneliness that came with it, for Shivani*, the feeling crept up on her unexpectedly. The Mumbai-based professional who works as a script analyst in a production house, has always enjoyed having her space, and has been living on her own for a year now. A couple of days ago however, she spent two days crippled by anxiety, crying, and unable to work. “I was frantic to somehow go to my hometown in Gujarat, despite the lockdown being in place. But at some point, I came to my senses and was able to calm down,” she tells TNM.

Shivani’s grandmother passed away around the same time that the lockdown was announced on March 24. Apart from the helplessness she felt at being unable to go home, she was also worried about her family and if they were social distancing while performing her grandmother’s last rites. 

“It got so overwhelming at one point that I was unable to work. And being unproductive really threw me off. I like living alone, and work from home a lot as well. So, feeling like this was very new and alarming for me,” she says.

“It also bothered me that everyone else on social media seemed to be enjoying their ‘quarantine time’, but I was unable to. It was very frustrating and alienating,” she adds.

That scores of people around the world are feeling anxious or experiencing other mental health issues because of the pandemic and resulting lockdown is known. However, anxiety itself is not normalised. For people like Shivani, seeing her friends making the most of their time at home while she grapples with these feelings, can be very isolating.

“While it is good to keep yourself occupied, sometimes, people can pressure themselves to do too much. We need to acknowledge that this is a difficult, horrible time and that feeling anxious about the present, and the uncertainty of the future, is normal,” Prathana states.

Fear and helplessness

Loneliness also heightens the fears that most have in the context of the pandemic. Both Smitha and Shivani feel afraid and helpless at the thought of running out of groceries or feeling unwell. “I feel miserable to know that if something happens to me, nobody will be able to check on me as the movement of vehicles is strictly regulated,” Smitha says.  

This is something that the elderly are feeling as well. Statistics have shown that COVID-19 affects those above 60 years of age more severely, and the age group also has a higher death rate due to the disease. Geriatric loneliness is already a widespread problem in India. A study by a Delhi-based non-profit Agewell Foundation found that out of 15,000 people surveyed, 47% suffered loneliness. Further, 15 million senior citizens in India live alone.

Shyam Kumar, Advocacy Officer for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh at HelpAge India – a non-profit that cares for disadvantaged senior citizens – says that since the lockdown began, they have been getting around 100 calls from senior citizens every day, saying they have nothing to do except watch TV all day. “And all they watch is news on coronavirus, which is making them even more anxious,” Shyam tells TNM. “While loneliness has always been an issue with India’s aging population, the lockdown has made them more aware of it. They have health issues, and feel afraid of stepping out, of no one finding out if they are sick or die.”

Soumya Hegde, a geriatric psychiatrist points out that isolation can exacerbate existing mental health issues among the elderly. “And for those who are fairly independent and don’t have preexisting mental health conditions, this has been a reality check. They can no longer go for their daily walks, to pay bills, or the local kirana store. They don’t want to burden their neighbours or anyone else, but are confined to their homes as well. The sense of dependency can be upsetting,” she says.

However, Soumya adds that the ‘reality check’ may not necessarily be a bad thing, because it has compelled many people to reach out, collaborate and realise they can ask for help where they didn’t think they needed to.

Dangers of developing unhealthy coping mechanisms

Mental health practitioners say that one of the dangers of isolation and loneliness is developing unhealthy habits or coping mechanisms – sometimes without even realizing it.

Mahesh points out that even before we realise or express the loneliness, the mind begins to cope. “So we may see behaviours of unhealthy consumption – alcohol, food, porn… it could be anything. Often, the realization of loneliness doesn’t come unless we see a tangible impact.”

“People may convince themselves that they will not talk to others and deal with their issues themselves, because the situation demands it. If they get used to it, when things get back to normal, it may become difficult for them to open up in interpersonal relationships,” Prarthana adds.

“If one gets used to being lonely, it can become difficult to develop new connections and socialize. Readjusting to a safer environment, believing things are okay – that they no longer need to hoard groceries and essentials – all this can be hard if people develop these behaviours as coping mechanisms,” she says.

There are a number of studies that show that loneliness, over a period of time, can also precipitate several physical and mental health issues among people.

How one can cope, and help others

In a lot of ways, the turnaround for many things has been quite swift with the lockdown, a lot of it thanks to the internet. People have started nominating each other on social media for challenges and games, are having virtual house parties and happy hours too. School and college classes have moved online, so have many gyms and fitness centres with online at-home workout routines. “This really makes one realise that in today’s world internet access is not a luxury – it is a necessity,” Mahesh points out.

While none of this can completely replace in-person interactions and physical contact, there are some things you can do to manage your mental health, and feelings of loneliness during this lockdown.

Shivani says that having a waking up early and routine helps her immensely. And for Tushar and Smitha, video calling with friends and family has been immensely helpful. Tushar also used social networking apps to meet new people which livened things on some evenings.

In addition to these, mental health practitioners suggest the following measures.

> For those comfortable with technology, social media can be a good place to make friends and have interactions. However, experts say that it can be made a lot safer.

> Find different ways to interact with friends. Cook something together, play games online, watch something together.

> When you are checking in with loved ones, ensure that both you and them are in a headspace to talk.

> Maintain a work-life balance even if you are working from home. Having a routine where you do other things – such as cooking, reading, exercising, watching something apart from just working helps.

> Don’t pressure yourself or others too much to utilize this time. Normalise anxiety, fear and other concerns you and others might have. Sometimes, just being listened to is more important, and trying to provide solutions may alienate the other person.

> If you have an elderly, disabled, or disadvantaged person living in your community, call them and assure them that you are available if they need help – such as medication or groceries. This can alleviate much of their helplessness and anxiety. And if they are feeling lonely, with their consent, set up a schedule to talk to them a couple of times a week.

> Beyond your friends and family, be kind to others in your community. Teaching someone how to make video calls, filter out fake news, providing supplies or support safely if you have the capacity, are not just helpful for them, but also increase one’s sense of purpose and connectedness. 

*Names changed