Loneliness was a societal problem within the U.S. even before the pandemic entered our lives earlier this year. Our sense of social connectedness is an important factor to our overall mental well-being; isolation can breed depression and anxiety. Social interactions have been shown to affect the reward pathways in our brains. Oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding and attachment, modulates these pathways. How do we balance our need to connect with our duty to practice social distancing, an essential public health strategy for controlling the spread of the virus? An awareness that sacrificing much of our socialization for the good of the community can be validating and acceptance that this is a temporary measure can be reassuring, but spending so much time by ourselves (particularly around the holidays and with the unexpectedly lengthy duration of this pandemic) can still be difficult. We are now challenged to find creative ways of remaining social. For some, this means extending ourselves past our usual comfort zones of communication.
The medium of our social interactions can make a difference. Data from functional MRIs demonstrates that live face-to-face recordings are associated with greater activation of certain reward centers in the brain compared to viewing recordings. Many teenagers and young adults may not be used to the idea of calling friends and family rather than texting only. Though there might be a temptation to keep the camera off whilst donning pajamas for meetings over video chat, intentionally keeping the camera on during these interactions may foster a greater sense of accountability, engagement, and connection. The term “Zoom fatigue” has been used to describe the burnout and tiredness from overusing virtual platforms to communicate as video conferencing is being used for school and work throughout the day, often for hours at a time. Some have been able to safely maintain a small “pod” of loved ones who they are able to see in person. It may be helpful to reflect on the opportunities to deepen one’s connections with a few close friends rather than looking for ways to form new relationships at this time. With the promise of vaccine availability on the horizon, some have found comfort in starting to flexibly plan for possible in-person events and travel for late 2021. Tentative plans can provide something to look forward to when we feel trapped in our day-to-day at-home routines. Certainly, primary care doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists are also available to provide more personalized assistance in addressing feelings of loneliness that have arisen during self-quarantine and to support those struggling.