This story is part of the Faculty of Education Wellness Initiative: Supporting a Focus on Health and Well-being.

“The definition of loneliness is feeling alone against our will,” says Dr. Dawn McBride, drawing on the words of developmental psychologist, Susan Pinker. At a time of mandatory social isolation and distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this definition can apply to all of us. “There is no shame in feeling lonely,” stresses McBride, a registered psychologist teaching in the Counselling Psychology programs within the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge. We’re wired for connection, a survival mechanism that evolved from the necessity of being around others for safety and protection.

Fast forward 4,000 years and our primitive brain doesn’t clue in that when we’re alone there is no danger. We have to train our brains that when we are lonely, we are still safe.

McBride draws on the work of former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy when she thinks of our needs for connection as three circles. The first circle contains people with whom we can be vulnerable. “Somebody who sees us in our rawness and still embraces us,” says McBride. “A romantic partner or best friend.” The second is people we can do things with — going to the gym, meeting for lunch, studying together and so on. The third circle is comprised of people with whom we share a collective sense of purpose, such as work colleagues or fellow volunteers with an organization. “If each circle isn’t filled to what we need for optimal functioning we will feel lonely,” says McBride. “Even people who enjoy solitude will feel lonely if their circles are not as full as they need them to be.

COVID-19 has severely curtailed many of the ways we are accustomed to filling our connection circles, but there are creative ways to compensate. “Our imaginations are very strong,” says McBride. When we can’t be with people we love we can recall and relive special times we’ve shared with them. Visualizing a protective, wise, or nurturing figure enveloping us is also effective. Significant animals or objects, real or imagined, can also bring comfort. “Research has showed that just 10 seconds of imagining can deactivate our threat response to being lonely,” says McBride.

To maintain meaningful contact with others she advises gravitating away from superficial topics. “Find 20 questions on Google to ask each other during a phone call. Do a screen share of a photo as a way to check in. Exchange a plant; leave it on each other’s doorstep, watch it grow, and talk about it,” she suggests. “Do word games together with your phone.” These activities give us a felt sense of being seen and remind us we are not alone.

When we give service to others, we also give somebody else the honour of being seen and heard,” says McBride.

Making recordings of books you read for the blind, offering to weed a neighbour’s garden, volunteering to help teachers with home schooling, or creating resource materials, all help satisfy our shared collective circle.

The definition of loneliness is feeling alone against our will,” says Dr. Dawn McBride, drawing on the words of developmental psychologist, Susan Pinker. At a time of mandatory social isolation and distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this definition can apply to all of us. Infographic designed by Darcy Tamayose.

“This is a time for us to tune inwards and find balance,” says McBride of the social isolation we are experiencing. “Learn about yourself. Look at those circles and figure out where you need to fill space. Analyze what’s important to you, and what you can strengthen in your life. When we self-reflect and become aware, emotions will have a place to land instead of swirling around and overwhelming us.” She encourages people to seek a therapist if they do not have the supports they need. “Especially for the first circle,” she says. “Being seen in your great vulnerability and not judged for that is what a counsellor does.”

University of Lethbridge counselling services for students and the employee assistance program remain available by phone and Zoom sessions. Each service has programming to help you cope through the pandemic.

University of Lethbridge Counselling and Career Services
To Phone for An Appointment, call: 403-317-2845

10 Ideas for Coping with Loneliness During Social Distancing

I Live Alone And Won't Be Able To Hug Anyone For Months. What Can I Do Until Then?

Tips When Lonely During Covid

Long-term social distancing may be traumatic. Here is what to expect and what to do:

How to Be Alone Without Being Lonely

Tapping In, by Laurel Parnell. Has some brief, beautiful scripts of how to find those in your life (or animals, or objects) that represent your protector figure, your wise figure, and nurturing figure.

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. (Former Surgeon General of the USA)


Related story links to the Faculty of Education Wellness Initiative series:
The Faculty of Education WELLNESS INITIATIVE: Supporting a Focus on Health and Well-Being
Wellness is Stillness: Jane O'Dea (dean emerita)
Wellness is Coping with Stress Through Art and Music: Jenn Pellerin
Wellness During the COVID-19 Experience, PSII, and Staying Connected: Kelsey Shoults
Twitter Education Community: Books are a Form of Wellness
Wellness is About Having a Consistent Routine: Alex Funk (BEd '17)
Wellness is Spiritual: David Slomp
• Wellness is Ranching: Danny Balderson
Coping with COVID-19: Harnessing our Natural Stress Response


Writer: Elizabeth McLachlan | Infographic Designer: Darcy Tamayose
Learn more about the Faculty of Education: Legacy Magazine (2008-2019)
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