The Margin: Social distancing has 40% of Americans feeling lonelier than ever

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Americans were already suffering a loneliness epidemic before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. And the social distancing measures vital to helping stop the virus from spreading have had the side effect of making people feel even more isolated.

More than four in 10 Americans said they are lonelier now than ever before as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey of 1,055 people commissioned by the University of Phoenix. And if these social distancing and quarantining measures continue — such as working and schooling from home, and keeping at least six feet apart from other people if you have to go out in public for an essential reason — one in five people said it would have major implications for their mental health.

Recent findings from the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index also revealed that some 35% of Americans said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic, and 43% said their emotional well-being had also gotten worse.

Nearly half of Americans already reported feeling lonely before the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 hit, and this loneliness carries health risks such as a greater risk for premature death.

And now life during the coronavirus pandemic is almost unrecognizable from what it was just a little more than a month ago. At least 16 million Americans are out of work as non-essential businesses have temporarily closed, and food bank lines are stretching half a mile long in some places. Major cities like Paris, Rome and New York have turned into ghost towns. Schools are closed, and sports are canceled for the time being.

Worse, while there have been some hopeful signs that the spread has slowed in places like New York, the number of coronavirus cases and deaths is still staggering: there are now more than 2 million cases worldwide, and at least 128,071 deaths — although the good news is that at least 500,717 people have recovered.

So it’s not surprising that people are feeling loneliness and anxiety like never before. People’s biggest fears at the moment include concern over their loved ones’ health (71%) and their own health (61%). And more than two in five Americans (41%) in this survey were actually more worried about their increasing anxiety than they were about not being able to pay their bills (33%), experiencing salary cuts or reduced work hours (26%) or losing their job/not being able to get another one (22%). (Still, these percentages show that many Americans are in fact very concerned about such financial struggles.)

More than two in three said that they feel like everything is out of their control right now, and more than half said they are balancing more now than ever before during this pandemic.

One silver lining is that most of the survey subjects also expressed feelings of gratitude and hope, with 65% saying they were thankful for their health, their family and their friends. More than a third (38%) are also optimistic that the country will emerge from the pandemic “stronger than ever,” and 30% are already making plans for life after the pandemic. Almost half (47%) believe social distancing guidelines will continue for another two or three months while 27% are bracing for four months or longer.

Dr. Dean Aslinia, the counseling department chair at University of Phoenix, offered a few tips to managing anxiety and isolation in an accompanying press release.

“Instead of texting or emailing, make a phone call or use video chat to build a more meaningful connection,” he wrote.

“Build activity in your day by trying something new or setting a goal for yourself to start a new project,” he added.

And he also suggested getting professional help if you can’t shake negative feelings, or if you feel overwhelmed. “Many mental health practitioners are offering virtual counseling sessions so you can have someone to talk to without leaving the house,” he said.

Indeed, the survey found that many people have been embracing self care, with 60% checking in with loved ones, and 35% exercising more often. Mental health experts also recently shared more tips to taking care of yourself at this time with MarketWatch, such as finding telehealth services and meditation apps, calling crisis hotlines and connecting with friends and family online.

Read more:‘We can get through this’: How to manage your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Stay up to date with MarketWatch’s coronavirus coverage here.

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