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COVID-19 Guidance for Students

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Loneliness and Connection

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Image featuring Student covid testing at Tresidder. Photo credit: Andrew Brodhead.

The experience of loneliness can vary between people, but a common thread is the absence of sufficient connection with others and self. While loneliness is complex, it can be simply understood as the unwanted feelings we experience stemming from the absence of connection. Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when we perceive a gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it. 

Connection is when we feel known, seen, understood, valued, remembered, and cared for. Like so many aspects of our human experience, connection is difficult to define in a way that works for everyone. For most of us, connection is a mosaic of feelings that indicate many of our basic needs are being met. It can be the feeling that you are an important part of a community, even when you're not actually physically present with that community. This type of connection, the communal interconnectedness and valuing of each other, is often called belonging: that sense that our people, our place, is home; that we belong here and feel generally positive and hopeful about the people and place that define here. This connection/community combination is a form of healthy togetherness. Humans are social creatures. Wherever you fall all the continuum of introversion and extroversion, there’s no way to work around our deep need for connection to/with others. 

So how do we get that connection we’re longing for? What needs to exist for us to feel belonging? Social integration is the extent to which we participate in a variety of social relationships (strong/deep bonds and weak ties), engage in social activities, and identify with a community. Social integration is the structure in which we find social support, vulnerability, and eventually intimacy. Together, social integration and social support create our feelings of home, belonging, and community. On campus, some of us entered the COVID-19 pandemic with strong social integration in newfound communities. Then the pandemic prevented those connections from blossoming into rich social support. Some of us had our solid communities, felt like we belonged, and could show up authentically. Then that social web was stripped away, leaving us with a sense of longing for our people. And still, some in March 2020 were seeking those deep connections and preparing to put ourselves out there in order to find our people and cultivate a sense of belonging. Wherever we were at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic has taken its toll on our ability to connect with those we love, build new relationships, and find mutual support in a community.

Loneliness points to an unmet need for connection. It’s that grief, anxiety, and sense of loss that comes from missing the fundamental human need for connection. When loneliness sits in our minds and bodies for too long, we can become anxious, withdraw socially, and get stuck in cognitive distortions, such as I am the only one who is feeling this way or I'm going to feel this way forever and it's my fault. We think of this as toxic loneliness, the state of being alone that deteriorates our well-being and pushes us further away from connection. Without awareness of how we humans respond to loneliness, we can feel powerless to change the experience.

Being alone is not the same as loneliness. We can feel connected and known even when we’re alone. We can feel lonely while surrounded by others. Not all time spent alone will lead to feelings of loneliness, and not all time spent with people will lead to feelings of connection. Togetherness can be overwhelming, superficial, and not actually lead to the feelings of connection we seek. How we orient ourselves to these situations, and what we “do” with nascent feelings, can drastically change how we feel in the end. We can start to complexify the experiences of being with people, and being on our own, gently abandoning our assumptions about what each of these can bring us. The value of spending time with ourselves is not centered enough in extraverted-dominated and productivity-focused cultures. Spending time alone is often a deeply meaningful way to connect with ourselves, learn about who we are, what we want, and restore our energy to be present in our world. This healthy solitude can be a gift when chosen with our own power.

Our goal is to find the balance between healthy solitude and healthy togetherness, meaningful connection with self and others. Part of reaching that goal is to understand the experiences of toxic loneliness and overwhelming togetherness and how we navigate them when they show up in our lives.

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Healthy Solitude

Time spent alone, often intentionally, that allows space for a more internal self-focus and personal growth, restores our energy, and allows us to temporarily stop doing and just be.

Healthy Togetherness

Being in community, feeling connected, known, and cared for, and a sense of support that creates feelings of home, enabling us to engage in challenges and better tolerate discomfort.

Toxic Loneliness

When our time spent alone negatively impacts our mental health, drains our capacity to care for ourselves and most importantly prevents us from seeking the support of others.

Overwhelming Togetherness

Social interaction that does not meet our needs, prevents us from showing up as our authentic selves, drains our energy, doesn’t facilitate connection, and can sometimes lead to toxic loneliness.

We respond to loneliness in different ways. We might think that the most natural, adaptive response to being lonely is to seek out connection and support. Unfortunately, this is not the easiest or automatic response most of us have when feeling the pangs of loneliness. Instead, it is common to think that we are alone in this feeling, that no one is also lonely, even feeling shame that we somehow got to this point. It’s a sad irony that often so many of us are feeling the same thing, the desperation to connect, and that very feeling itself makes connection harder. If we don’t have an easily accessible community or loved one, we may try coping by keeping busy, overloading our schedules, and seeking out other pleasures to soothe the pain. While some of these strategies may occasionally and temporarily meet our need for comfort, they ultimately are bandaids on a wound that needs the tender care and attention of others. Breaking this downward spiral of loneliness requires our awareness and noticing of these patterns. This awareness gives us the power to break these patterns and take actions to move towards connection and away from loneliness.