Living alone, but make it during a pandemic
By Samreen Maqsood
After a long and tough day of online classes, Naya Yacoub ran herself a hot bath, lit some vanilla scented Bath and Body Works candles, put on some slow indie music and put the world on pause. She settled into the bubble bath, thinking her day was over.
The first-year fashion student at Ryerson University missed her friends and family back home in Calgary, as well as her boyfriend in New Brunswick. Keeping in touch with them online was still keeping in touch, but she couldn’t wait to get back to the “old normal” of being there with them — going out for food and drinks, thrifting and attending fashion events.
Yacoub remembered one night when she was feeling particularly lonely. She was scrolling on TikTok when she saw a video of someone speaking to their reality of constantly feeling alone. They dove into the details of how COVID-19 affected their life and how this pandemic has created a world filled with people who are all feeling alone.
COVID-19 seems to have forced Canadians into living the same day over and over, often alone and isolated from their regular communities, which is making them feel lonelier than usual, according to a recent Ipsos survey. The more self-isolated and lonely a person feels, the more stressed they will feel.
Realizing she wasn’t alone and could reach out for support, Yacoub began opening up to her friends and family when she would think herself into a bad mood. She found that the majority of them felt the same way.
“This entire sequence of events has gifted me with the ability to accept my feelings, talk them through and then dismiss them,” she says. “The key thing here is connection.”
COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns have been especially difficult for those who are living alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, younger adults who are living alone felt more anxious and depressed during the pandemic than older adults living alone. The report found that 51 per cent of people ages 18-44 who live alone had anxiety, and 51 per cent of those living alone had lost their jobs during the pandemic and reported higher feelings of anxiety compared to those who still had a source of income.
Being alone was a huge change and beyond terrifying for Yacoub. Without the comfort of having her family and friends around whenever needed, Yacoub found that she had to gain inner strength and force herself to face the idea of independence.
“It was difficult realizing that I didn't have my parents to rely on like I was used to,” she says. “When I was down, sick or needing help, I found my own ways to cope, which I now have so much value for. Self-soothing was a skill I didn’t think I had in my life until I was put into an environment and situation that forced me to develop it.”
Through the journey of finding herself and gaining enough strength to pull herself out of her negative mindset, Yacoub found interesting hobbies to keep herself occupied. Her favourite is rug-hooking, a craft where you make rugs by pulling loops of fabric through a woven backing. She enjoys the slowness of the activity most of all, as she says it’s a break from her fast-paced routine.
“Creating is such a fulfilling and beautiful way to spend time,” Yaroub says. “The great thing about it is there is no fear of failing. You can express yourself artistically and be left with something you've made yourself. You can play, which is something we forget is so important when we reach adulthood.”
According to Leslie Hackett, a relational and psychotherapist in Winnipeg, extroverts feel the stress of the pandemic much earlier on. They have been affected by the inability to socialize in-person and to make plans with large groups of people. A client of hers recently mentioned "the exhaustion of being bored,” which she thought was a great description of the feeling. Having a lot of time to rest does not work for everyone, as some people recharge their batteries through interaction with others.
However, Hackett said that everyone can get stuck in negative thought patterns when spending a lot of time alone, regardless of if you’re introverted or extroverted. The challenge for people who are very introverted and have enjoyed being able to stay home will be when we eventually have to venture out into public interaction again. People who enjoy and need a lot of time to themselves may not be distressed by pandemic restrictions, especially if they get social contact through work. Those people might find it difficult to get back into the routine of being around other people, which can be exhausting for an introvert.
For Yacoub, the biggest way to combat her loneliness is by staying active. Winter made staying active more difficult, but she found at-home workouts and yoga sessions on YouTube to help her. Along with having a healthy and balanced diet, she can focus more on her mental and physical well-being during such difficult times.
According to an article in the Daily Press, social isolation can lead to loneliness and cause stress, which can have severe effects on both mental and physical health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that loneliness is associated with a 50 per cent risk of developing dementia, along with increasing a person’s risk of premature death from all causes including obesity and physical inactivity. For 10 per cent of the adults already facing anxiety and depression because of loneliness from the pandemic, they will have long-lasting effects from their mental health, according to Dr. Shekhar Saxena, a professor for the practice of global mental health courts.
Narod Zakarian, a second-year social work student at Ryerson University, moved away from Burnaby, B.C., during the summer, something she says impacted her mental health. Zakarian was used to waking up the smell of coffee, or the sound of her mother's voice saying good morning. Now, when Zakarian wakes up, it’s with a sense of loneliness inside her and an empty apartment to go with it.
According to an article by Calgary CTV News, Canadians’ mental health has declined for the 10th time since the Mental Health Index rating system was put in place in April 2020. The reasoning behind this is because of the long and harsh Canadian winter and the uncertainties of the pandemic.
Zakarian remembered those nights where disappointment took over her body and self-doubt was the only thing running through her mind. “Did I make the right choice by coming here?” she would often think to herself. In November 2020, she decided to go to therapy.
“For the longest time, I thought I didn’t need therapy,” she says. “I thought I was okay because I was suppressing my emotions.”
In therapy, Zakarian learned how to manage being a full-time student and her job and learned to love herself, including how to allow herself to feel negative emotions and coming up with healthy ways to cope. One day a week, Zakarian spends the days practicing self care — cleaning her room, putting on new bedsheets, drawing a bubble bath and having some wine.
“It's important to pay attention to where your mind is going and to interrupt those negative thought cycles,” Hackett says. “It's not easy to do, but it's important to avoid going into really dark states of mind.”
In an article by Rolling Stone, Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in New York, said that while people were doing art projects, home renovations and puzzles last year, this time they’re spending hours in front of a screen unsuccessfully trying to book a vaccine appointment. According to Brateman, this only takes more of a toll on people’s mental health.
According to the CDC report, immigrant and LGBTQ2IA+ people are at a higher risk for loneliness, with language barriers, differences in community and family dynamics being the biggest reasons for loneliness within these groups. In the Rolling Stone article, Brateman gave different ways to boost mental health and avoid loneliness.
One of the biggest recommendations many Canadian therapists have given is virtual therapy sessions. Talking from the comforts of your home can help people open up more, said Barteman. There’s less travel time involved and easier access for people living in rural areas and higher retention rates.
With the increase in technology use, such as Zoom and video conferencing, Barteman also suggests chatting virtually with loved ones to conquer the feeling of loneliness. While it won’t necessarily fill the gap of in-person meetups, therapists say it is still good to stay in touch with friends and family regularly to avoid spiralling into a dark mental state.
A Canadian initiative set up by Here to Help B.C. is “The Loneliness Project,” which is a collection of personal stories aiming to help those who are lonely. It also provides new strategies on how to build connections with new people and develop compassion in these difficult times.
Several therapists have said that while self-care days are important, maintaining social connection is so important for maintaining a healthy mood and frame of mind, according to Hackett.
Technology allows people to have virtual meetups with friends and family. Seeing people's faces and hearing their voices is a major part of fulfilling communication. At the same time, Hackett realizes that lots of people are tired of talking on-screen, especially if they have to do that for work or school. There is also the option of meeting up with one or more people in outdoor settings, depending on where you live and the pandemic restrictions. Hackett encourages people to do this, only if it is safe and according to the guidelines in their area.
“Nature can be very restorative, and that, combined with conversation with a friend, can really break up the monotony and isolation we're experiencing,” she says.