From a collective point of view, one of the best things we can all do during the Covid-19 pandemic is practice social distancing and isolate ourselves. But as individuals, the side effects of isolation -- especially with no known end date in sight -- can be devastating.
A number of studies show that feelings of loneliness can cause significant health effects. The death rate is twice as high for people who lack social and community ties. In fact, one researcher says loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes each day.
Of course those effects are the far end of the impact spectrum. But then there's this: Our brains process information more efficiently in the presence of other people than while alone -- even if you're engaging with people on a phone or screen.
Add it all up, and isolation, while necessary, is also a problem. So how can you better deal with the repercussions of all that alone time?
For answers, I went to two experts in spending time alone: Nicole Apelian and Zachary Fowler, both of whom were contestants on HISTORY's Alone. (The new season, Alone: Million Dollar Challenge, premieres June 11th on HISTORY.)
The premise of Alone is simple: Drop contestants in the wilderness with limited gear, isolated from all human contact except for periodic medical check-ins, and see who lasts the longest.
Which, since there's no way to know when the contest will end, only adds to the mental and emotional stress. (Sound familiar?)
So how do you dealing with the fact no set end is in sight?
"The key is to stop obsessing over everything you can't control and just take it one thing at a time," Fowler says. "Every time I did something, I finished something, I just did the next thing. Whenever I'm stuck, whenever I'm alone or frustrated... I just do the next thing."
Small, day to day goals that serve a larger goal help keep you motivated -- and more importantly, feeling successful. Because feeling successful, in however small a way, always feels good.
Apelian sees the lack of normal connections as an opportunity to make other connections, especially with nature. She has a "sit spot," a place where she watches the birds, the deer, and the change of seasons.
"You can connect not just to robins," she says, "but to a robin. I knew the bears on Alone; I wanted to know what they were doing. I knew the eagle, the pair of kingfishers. That made me feel connected to their lives, and in a way, like they were connected to mine."
Apelian also tries to enjoy the gift of timeliness.
"If you find yourself with a little free time, let go of the need to be constantly productive and instead actively try to not think about what time it is. When I was in Mongolia, a man said to me, 'Every time one of you looks at a watch, the very next thing you do is rude,' because checking your watch means you just disconnected. Constantly checking the time takes you out of the present moment."
Fowler also recommends knowing your "weak" times.
"At the end of the workday, people naturally start to miss the life that was their life," he says. "If that happens to you, plan for it: Use that time to reach out, to call family or friends, or to find old friends. And if you can connect with someone who is tired and struggling and give them a kind word... then you both win."
Bottom line: While your day-to-day has changed, you can still find a sense of meaning. According to Eckhart Tolle in the bestselling A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, the happiest people are those who live in the moment -- with purpose.
When your options are limited," Apelian says, "that can actually be a kind of gift, because it means you can live in the right now."
And to do check off a long unfilled box.
"Instead of complaining about what you've lost," Fowler says, "focus on the opportunity you've gained to do what you've always said you wanted to do. Start that project. Learn that instrument. Get more disciplined and consistent with something you've always wanted to do."
As the Stoics would say, you can't control what happens to you.
But you can control how you respond -- and that sense of agency and purpose will help you better cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness.