What to Do if Diminished Social Life Hurts Mental Health

The physical and mental health threats of COVID-19 are real and well-documented, but if you’re simply feeling bummed about missing your buddies, canceled pickup sports leagues, or—hell—your commute, that’s valid. The pandemic is affecting mental health in myriad ways.

“The isolation many are experiencing is one of the most devastating things about this moment,” says Avi Klein, LCSW, a New York-based therapist who specializes in men’s mental health.

See, human beings are hardwired for connection, explains Paul L. Hokemeyer, PhD, LMFT, a psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having It All Is Never Enough. “Social connectedness is essential for our survival. It enables us to adapt to challenges and evolve as a species. Without social connections, we physically and emotionally atrophy.”

That’s well-documented, too. Some studies suggest loneliness and social isolation could be twice as detrimental to both your physical and mental health as obesity is. It’s been linked to everything from depression and poor sleep to impaired brain function, poor heart function, and cognitive decline.

You can’t just put your social life on hold till the pandemic passes; connectedness is too important to your overall mental health, Hokemeyer says. It can bolster your immune system, help you find value and purpose, and lessen your metaphorical load. Ultimately, it gives you some ownership over your day-to-day life in a chaotic world.

So how can you safely resurrect a floundering social life and boost your mental health amidst a pandemic? Here are four ways to go about it.

Mental Health Tips for the COVID-19 Pandemic:

1. Socialize Through Exercise—in Real Life or Online

Exercise is a proven health, mood, and self-esteem booster—boons that certainly can’t hurt right now. By adding a social element to your sweat (say via a live Peloton or Mirror class), you’re adding to the benefits of fitness. “By joining a group of other people working to improve their health, you feel a sense of connection,” explains Hokemeyer, which can play a role in managing stress, fear, anger, uncertainty, and chaos, he says.

If you’re craving a face-to-face connection, get outside. By now it’s clear that being in Mother Nature minimizes your risk of contracting COVID-19. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends choosing outdoor activities and places such as parks or open-air facilities if you’re going to go out.) A socially distanced run or bike ride is a triple whammy, says Klein: It helps you stay fit, fills your social quota for the day, and fits the bill as a lower-risk activity. Just be sure to wear a mask. (These are the best for workouts.)

2. Give Your Time Away

Volunteerism has strong links to both physical and mental health—so much so that some research suggests the activity should be promoted as a part of a healthy lifestyle. And while any kind of volunteering could have benefits, some studies find that “other-oriented” efforts—those that are humanitarian or altruistic in nature, for example—have a great effect on social well-being and physical health than “self-oriented” efforts (anything you’re doing to purposefully “better” yourself). Try something like Create the Good, AARP’s database of gigs or Career Village, where you can give away your time (virtually) to answer questions from kids who want to enter your field of work when they grow up.

3. Be Proactive—and a Little Unorthodox

In a pre-pandemic world, you’d plan your social outings ahead of time. Today? You’ve got to do the same. So push past your grievances (video socialization can taste like fake sugar, we know) and continue to reach out to connect, explains Klein. “You’ll get out of a ‘stuck’ place and into action. Instead of feeling discouraged, you’ll feel empowered and more in control of your life,” Hokemeyer explains.

Miss your pickup hockey league? Start a group text thread and ask the guys if they’d be up for a weekly interactive online video game meet-up (try Among Us). Haven’t been on a date night in … you don’t remember when? Take a few minutes every night to ask thought-provoking questions sure to start a conversation: “What was the most important part of your day?” or “What surprised you most today?” suggests Klein. An app like Lasting (which was actually developed to be a supplement to couple’s therapy) can also help foster a deeper connection between partners, he says.

4. Speak Up About How Much It Sucks

If you feel like you’re the only one in the world (or in your friend group) who’s down and out about the loss of your social life as you knew it, you can wind up feeling even more alone, explains Klein. The antidote: Let people know how you feel. Text your group thread about how much you’re missing your in-real-life hangouts. Tell your brother you’re reeling over not being able to really be there for your niece’s birthday. Hear Klein out: “Even though it might feel risky, I guarantee you that people feel the same way—and when we feel that someone is a little bit like us then we feel more connected.” Plus, maybe simply speaking up will spark that unorthodox meet-up—or more conversations. You won’t know unless you speak up.

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