Separation anxiety in the already lonely – supporting older and vulnerable people who live alone.

Loneliness is an increasing issue for those living by themselves, especially those who are older, unemployed or financially stretched.

Now, more than ever, people are struggling with loneliness as COVID-19 restrictions prevent visits to friends, children and grandchildren, and in some cases, partners.

At such a challenging time, it’s important to watch out for those who need support and ensure they’re seeking help if and when they need it.

“By our very nature, we are herd animals,” says Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, a senior clinical psychologist and researcher at the Black Dog Institute who specialises in adult separation anxiety disorder.

“When we’re anxious, we want to be close to the people that we’re attached to, people that will give us a feeling of comfort and security.”

“Extreme levels of separation anxiety are considered to be a clinical disorder affecting a subset of the population. However, the anxiety that vulnerable people may be experiencing about maintaining social distancing can share similarities with this condition”.

“Human society has traditionally been organised into tribes and villages, where people live in close proximity to one another. I think that’s one of the problems with social distancing, is that it goes against our natural inclination,” Professor Manicavasagar says.

“Social distancing is actually a very tricky concept because even though we can see our friends and family on screen through apps like FaceTime and Zoom, or we can chat over the phone, our innate instinct is to want to be with those people in person.”

Disconnection can drive anxiety

This lack of physical contact can lead to feeling disconnected from others. Some may experience a lack of meaning in their lives and/or feelings that affect their self-esteem, while others may lose their confidence as a result of being physically isolated from friends, family and colleagues.

Being alone for long periods also gives unhelpful coping styles the opportunity to creep in – social distancing, particularly for people who live alone, provides the perfect setting for one drink too many, for using recreational drugs, over-eating and not exercising enough, among other temptations.

And, without others around, there may also be a lack of routine which would otherwise help us to regulate our behaviours, keeping us healthy and functioning normally.

Maintaining mental health during social isolation

While the circumstances of COVID-19 are forcing most people to make drastic lifestyle changes, Professor Manicavasagar advises simple solutions to overcoming the challenges of isolation:

  • Engaging in hobbies, starting a new project, reading a good book or watching a movie can bring a sense of pleasure and achievement to an otherwise unstructured day.
  • Staying connected – discussing day-to-day activities (what Professor Manicavasagar calls “sharing the mundane”) with friends and family members can be helpful in connecting to others over the phone or online.
  • Talking shop – for people who are still working, connecting with colleagues and engaging on professional issues can help to maintain key professional competencies and confidence.
  • Scheduling regular chats with others – while impromptu calls are fine, scheduling regular virtual catch-ups with friends and family can build stability and predictability in an otherwise uncertain period.
  • Seeking support – for those who are really struggling, the Black Dog Institute website offers a range of mental health advice and support, including a weekly mental heath check-in and the MyCompass for seniors.
Full Article:
Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar is a clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute and the author of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash