Loss of human connection has become a painful epidemic alongside the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Studies have shown that four of every 10 adults have coped with anxiety or depression over the last year, up from one in 10 prior to the pandemic. Children and teens have been suffering as well.
Now that millions of people are getting their vaccines and our communities are beginning to open up, behavioral health experts are discovering how isolation and loneliness have affected people and how challenging it may be for some people to feel comfortable with in-person human connection again.
Another casualty of the pandemic: loss of human connections
Vanessa Rollins has a doctorate in psychology and cares for patients from children through older adults as an integrated behavioral health expert who works closely with primary care providers at UCHeath Family Medicine in Boulder. (Click here to learn how integrated behavioral health works.)
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rollins saw many patients who were dealing with anxiety directly related to the pandemic.
“We heard, ‘I’m afraid to go to the grocery store and touch things. I’m afraid I might get sick or worse that I might get other people sick,’” said Rollins who is also an assistant professor in Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Everyone wanted to know how to stay safe and protect family members from the virus. People who already suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) needed help letting go of worries that were being validated constantly in the news. Trips anywhere out of the house felt dangerous. Meanwhile, those who already were vulnerable to anxiety and depression sank to deeper lows while others needed help from behavioral health experts for the first time.
For several weeks last spring, Rollins and her behavioral health colleagues helped all of their patients through online, virtual visits. But, Rollins and her colleagues soon returned to in-person sessions because many patients desperately needed the lifeline of human connection.
During successive waves, patients were dealing with the economic and mental health side-effects of the pandemic.
“Now we’re seeing the fallout from a year of social isolation and economic instability. Family struggles, health issues caused by chronic stress, kids with learning or behavioral problems, substance abuse, and loneliness are all part of what we now have to get through,” Rollins said.
And, as people get vaccines and the rules of human contact evolve and change again, Rollins is finding that the people who did the best job of staying safe and social distancing are having trouble figuring out how to embrace human connections again now.
“How do we get back to normal and what is normal? Those who did it right — who didn’t have a big Thanksgiving get-together or Super Bowl parties — they’re the most concerned. They want to have a life again, but it feels wrong to let go of rules they’ve embraced for so long,’’ Rollins said.
Rollins uses a variety of evidence-based treatment methods — ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to mindfulness — to help her patients.
To assist the general public, Rollins offers advice on restoring human connections.
5 tips to cope with pandemic anxiety and restore human connections:
1. Live in the moment.
How can I get help with behavioral health care?
If you are already a patient at a UCHealth primary care clinic that also has a behavioral health expert, you can seek a referral from your primary care provider.
What is integrated behavioral health care?
Integrated behavioral health care means that experts in mental, emotional and behavioral health — like psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed counselors — work closely in the same clinics with primary care providers.
Is help available for children and teens?
It depends on the clinic. All of the family medicine clinics, like the one where Vanessa Rollins practices, serve patients of all ages. Some primary care clinics serve just adults.
Does insurance cover behavioral health visits?
If you see a behavioral health expert at your primary care clinic, your visit should be covered by insurance. Check your plan to be sure.
What do I do if I need help immediately?
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 911 or go to your local hospital. Colorado Crisis Services also offers 24/7 support at 844-493-TALK (8255) or by texting TALK to 38255.
Rollins teaches her patients a very simple technique called “See. Hear. Feel.”
The idea is to train our minds to focus only on the present moment, to live in the “now.”
“If you’re connecting to the present, you’re not worried about when the pandemic is going to end or if we’re going to be wearing masks for the rest of our lives,” Rollins said. “And you’re not lamenting the rough year you’ve had.”
If you like to garden, look for birds, sit on your deck, walk or run, take time while you’re outside to simply notice the world around you. See three things. Hear three things. Feel three things.
“Think to yourself, I’m looking at the mountains. I see the blue skies. I’m feeling the air or sun on my skin. I feel the sensation of gravel under my feet. I’m hearing the geese,” Rollins said. “
“The things we are worrying about are rarely right in front of us. It’s all abstract, things that haven’t happened yet or probably won’t happen, or things from the past we’ve already lived through.” Rollins said.
Noticing simple sights, sounds and sensations helps ground us in the present moment and let go of worries.
2. Challenge yourself to have simple, incidental interactions with people.
If you’re one of those people who has been excellent at following health advice and you’ve been limiting your social interactions, you may need some practice at connecting with others again.
Throughout the pandemic, many people have missed incidental interactions with strangers as well as the deeper social connections. Experts know how valuable even these little moments are.
“We spent a long time walking away from other people and avoiding eye contact. Humans are social animals. We need to have social feedback,” Rollins said.
People who are coping with depression and anxiety need to renew social connections through in-person contacts.
“It’s going to take some creativity to bring that back,” Rollins said.
She encourages her patients to get out in the world — safely, and following guidelines from local authorities and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But, she tells them to purposely go to a coffee shop or a restaurant and pick up a to-go order. Take the time to have a short conversation with the worker.
“Look that person in the eye. Smile under your mask. Ask how their day is going. Or make some sort of comment about how your day is going.”
Some people didn’t have large networks before the pandemic and they are suffering deeply now.
“I’ve had patients who are new to Colorado. They moved at a time when it’s extremely challenging to make friends,” she said.
Especially for people who don’t have large social circles, incidental interactions can be a lifeline until they can meet more people through work and hobbies.
“If you don’t have personal or close family health risk factors, go in person to the store. Make eye contact with your checker, say hello,” Rollins said. “I had a great conversation with my checker the other day about how much we both loved the new gluten-free Oreos, we were both laughing and it felt good.’”
3. Reclaim human connections by setting up safer in-person gatherings with friends and family.
Fear has governed our choices for more than a year.
Now that the CDC is saying it’s ok for vaccinated people to get together unmasked, we need to start chipping away at our fears, Rollins said.
“Figure out what your personal level of risk is, have honest conversations with friends and family and challenge yourself to connect with others in-person in ways that have been deemed safer by the CDC or local guidelines.”
“If you have friends or family who have been vaccinated, and you have too, reach out and have a talk about getting together,” she said.
“Overcoming fear means stretching yourself a touch beyond where you feel totally safe, it doesn’t mean ripping off your mask and running around hugging strangers, but it does mean weighing your real need for social connection again with what science is currently telling us is ok to do.”
Outdoor gatherings have been much safer than indoor gatherings, so for some, dipping toes in the social waters through small, outdoor gatherings is a good start.
4. Prioritize exercise.
Exercise is critical for physical and emotional well-being.
Gyms were closed for a while and some people continued to feel unsafe returning to a gym. If that’s true for you, it’s critical to find alternatives, Rollins said.
“It’s hard for some people to switch gears. I’ve had some patients who stopped going to the gym with the idea they’d return once the pandemic was over. Two weeks of no exercising then stretched out into months of no activity. Now we have to find a way to get the activity back. It’s vital to our wellbeing”
Rollins tells people that exercise is an incredibly powerful medicine.
“Research shows we need vigorous activity. Exercise boosts endorphins and serotonin, and decreases stress hormones and inflammation. Studies consistently show it improves the effectiveness of antidepressant and antianxiety medication and in many cases trumps medication,” Rollins said.
“Take your dog on a walk, bicycle, hike, walk around the mall. Find something that works for you and get out there,” she said.
If you’ve been isolating yourself religiously and you’re worried about crowds outdoors, then plan ahead.
“Assess your tolerance for risk,” Rollins said.
You can look for trails that are less crowded or enjoy parks on weekdays during off-peak hours.
“Nothing we do is going to be 100% safe. But there’s an acceptable level of risk when weighed against the benefits of activity. Risk of transmission outdoors has been deemed relatively low and we know the benefits of activity are very real,” Rollins said.
Especially for those who have been starved of social contact, she urges them to make eye contact with strangers outside. Even with your mask on, you can safely wave and greet people. You’ll feel better and the people you greet may as well.
5. Accept reality and reframe expectations.
We need to be kind to ourselves. The pandemic has been devastating. Many people know of someone who has been sick with or died from COVID-19. Other losses have mounted. The pandemic has been scary and has upended our lives.
So, it’s OK to grieve and it’s vital not to create unrealistic expectations around our recovery.
“We had to learn a whole new way of being. Now, after being told to keep away from people for a year, we’re hearing that a time to reconnect in old ways is coming. It’s going to take some time to adjust and find a new normal,” Rollins said.
“One of the things behavioral health providers having been talking about a lot is acceptance. Knowing that given all that we’ve been through, there’s a bit of a ceiling on how comfortable we are going to feel,” Rollins said.
“That doesn’t mean deciding life is terrible, but there are real challenges, real uncertainties, real changes in many people’s lives and that’s created a sense of loss.”
“Yes, we can absolutely be happy and find ways to have meaning in our lives. But, the loss is there and it’s OK to grieve and feel discomfort related to the uncertainties,” she said.
That’s why it’s so helpful to reframe expectations.
“The conclusion that we can only be happy again when everything is back to normal tends to create more suffering. Even though our current situation is hugely not preferred, what small thing can I still find joy or gratitude in?”
If people what to learn more about these strategies or find that they’re struggling to navigate on these transitions on their own, therapy through UCHealth integrated primary care, and elsewhere in the community, is available. Reach out.