Wellness Wednesday: The importance of staying connected, a year in to the COVID-19 pandemic


Young woman sitting against blank wall looking reflective.
Pandemic stresses and separations have caused many people to feel lonely, but there are ways to find connection. (Karanvir Singh Sangha/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The importance of staying connected, a year in to the COVID-19 pandemic
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This morning, I'm talking with Dr. Lindsey Philpot, health services researcher and epidemiologist at Mayo Clinic. During this series, we have talked about the subject of loneliness, but we really put the focus on senior citizens. And I think it's an important subject to revisit the subject of loneliness — as you know, we're a year into the pandemic — but not just how it's affected senior citizens, but all of us.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: I understand that there's a study that you and your colleagues from Mayo Clinic recently published, and it was a loneliness study. So can you tell me about that study?

Lindsey Philpot: Absolutely. So you know in the early days of the pandemic, we had a number of public policy and interventions that were created to help mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 and to protect our infrastructure: services like hospitals and places of care delivery. Now, these policies and interventions altered what we call our normative social behaviors. So we were no longer having coffee or lunch with friends, we were no longer attending PTA meetings or joining our religious services or celebrations.

So as a research team, we were really curious to see how these altered social behaviors were impacting the social well being and wellness of individuals in our communities. So we'd previously been collecting insight onto social well-being from a large group of individuals across our region before the pandemic. So we had an opportunity to re-reach out to those people and look for changes from a pre-pandemic state where we were going about our normal social lives and social behaviors, to during the pandemic and shelter-in-place time to see how were individuals really experiencing their social lives.

Yeah, and I've got to think that there was a big impact there. So what were some of your most surprising findings?

Well, overall, we observed that individuals were experiencing significantly lower levels of friendship and companionship during their shelter-in-place directives than before that. This might not be surprising, as we all lost our ability to have passive social interaction at the workplace, at our children's basketball games, at church. So early on, our attention was really focused on making sure our loved ones were safe and that we were transitioning to these new norms, which might have been impacting our feelings of friendship.

But when we dug a little deeper, what we really found was that there were certain groups that were having a tougher time than others. For example, women in our sample were experiencing feelings of loneliness to a much greater degree than men. And then we also observed that individuals with poor mental and physical health abilities were experiencing greater degrees of loneliness as well. But you know, our findings weren't all troubling. We did observe that most people were experiencing an increased sense of what we call emotional support, and emotional support being the level of love and support and reassurance that an individual feels.

When we talk about loneliness, and how it affects our lives, how it affects our social connections, that's always important, you know, to point out the difference between loneliness and being alone.

So loneliness is a sense of where we anticipate or we want a certain degree of social connection with others but we don't feel like we're getting what we need in order to be fulfilled; while we can be alone and we can feel as though we're thriving. Maybe we have hobbies that we enjoy individually, maybe we like to read books, and we have that alone time that can be very reinvigorating, rejuvenating individuals. But loneliness is when that gets to a place where it feels like it makes you feel sad. It makes you feel unhappy with how your social interaction or social relationships are going.

It's pretty clear that women have really been affected by the pandemic. What were some of the factors there?

So in our study, women were experiencing significantly higher degrees of loneliness during the pandemic than prior to it. We know that women have been experiencing several factors as a result of the pandemic: high rates of job loss or decisions to leave the work environment. Now the work environment is typically a place of social support and connection for individuals. So this disruption in our typical working environment could have been making women feel more isolated and lonely.

Women also took on increased responsibilities for the care of loved ones, including children, individuals with disabilities, older family members during the pandemic. Women are so worried about giving of themselves to care for others, but this can often make individuals feel more depleted and then more isolated from those around them. We give and we give and we give, but sometimes this can make us feel even more lonely.

Yeah, I can relate to that. As a woman, I can relate to that. So what do we do with these findings? I mean, what is the big takeaway here?

So our findings highlight that we've experienced a great deal during this pandemic, not just financially and physically, but also emotionally and within our social relationships. We have an opportunity to be intentional about our need for social support and social connection by reaching out to others. We're social animals by nature; we need love and support and companionship in order to really be happy and healthy and thrive in our lives. So during these times of social status, strain and stress, it's important to not only be helpful to one another, but also to be present with one another.

Well, it sounds like some of the big advice there could be how important it is to to try to reach out in some way.

Absolutely. So we can think of a couple avenues to really foster these social relationships during these times. First, we've got technology to safely connect with others. Through the pandemic, we've got the use of FaceTime, and Zoom has really exploded. But what I would challenge individuals to think about is not just to reach out to others, but to be vulnerable during those interactions. So open up and share how you were feeling and how you're experiencing life. Ask people that we care about, "How are you doing?" and don't accept, "Okay," as a response. Nudge them to expand, nudge to really learn and really hear and understand one another. This will really foster feelings of emotional support and friendship that can help stave off those feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Yeah, I really like how you point that out: just don't accept, "Okay." I have some friends that they get a little annoyed with me because when I asked how they're doing, they say, "Okay," and I respond, "How are you really doing?"

Absolutely. So important to really help not only ourselves feel more connected, but then pull out those that we love, and we care about and really push them to understand their world.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Karanvir Singh Sangha (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.

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