One step at a time: Fighting loneliness during coronavirus social isolation

A person with a face mask sits alone by a window. Photo credit: Vuong Viet/CC 2.0, via Pixabay

The COVID-19 outbreak has transformed how we interact -- due to stay-at-home social distances measures. You might be feeling lonelier, especially if you live by yourself. 

Since the outbreak, phone calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline have gone up 300%

Rebecca Gutierrez, PsyD, is the program director for the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services and Suicide Prevention Center in Culver City. She explains why these feelings form during crises and gives tips on coping.  


Rebecca Gutierrez. Photo courtesy of Gutierrez

Gutierrez explains that anxiety and stress are normal when life is uncertain. But feelings of isolation can be heightened for those struggling with mental illness right now.

“It's really key that we encourage people to really take extra steps in maintaining those meaningful relationships to really counter those feelings of loneliness, especially right now, where it can come up even more so,” she says.

If you live alone, Gutierrez suggests focusing on what you can control: “Part of it … is the social connectedness. We recommend for individuals who do live alone to consistently engage in things that they do have control in: reaching out to other people, doing what they feel most comfortable with and with people in your circles.”

She also recommends that if you know someone who lives by themselves, reach out:

“Check in with them and [offer] them a space. ... It really is [about] finding different ways of how to have an avenue of expressing your own concerns, and not remaining home isolated and feeling like there's no space to really communicate any feelings or experiences that you might be having.” 

Breaking the self-isolation cycle

Guiterrez notes that it’s common for people to keep to themselves. 

She describes her experience with crisis hotline callers: “We hear the reasons why they don't have motivation [to contact someone in their social circle]. But then we also hear the reasons why they might [make contact], and hear why those connections might be important. And using that part of them to really help initiate and activate … some level of action.”  

Guiterrez explains how she helps someone reach a level of comfort: “First, we want to get them focused on the present. A lot of the time, people are worried about what has happened and what's going to happen.”

What-if scenarios can often pull someone away from the present, she says.  

“If we can get someone to just stay a little bit more grounded and just kind of focus, even with breathing exercises … it makes it feel more doable and more realistic to take those smaller steps.” 

For example, what if someone isn’t comfortable doing a video conference call with friends?

She recommends identifying the friend you feel most comfortable with, and texting them for support. “That could be an initial start. … It's kind of breaking it down to make it feel like it's more palatable and empowering. And giving that person a sense of control and an ability to complete a goal.”  

Try this breathing exercise

Guiterrez refers to this technique as belly breathing, a name derived the literal expansion of your belly while breathing. 

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. 

While counting to three, take a deep breath in, allowing your stomach to expand. 

Then, exhale slowly, while also counting to three.

Repeat as necessary. 

Resources 

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days of the week. 

You can also contact Lifeline Chat, a web chat service of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Both are confidential services open  to anyone who is in need of support during difficult times. 

--Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Credits

Guest:
Rebecca Gutierrez - PsyD, the program director for the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services and Suicide Prevention Center in Culver City.

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin