Richelle Kingsland lives alone in a building near Toronto with no family in sight. After a day of online work and school, she cooks dinner for one and eats on her couch.
When she’s not delving into school assignments, she spends evenings catching up with her sister or friends on video calls.
While Kingsland says she has the companion of her dog, one of the challenges living through the COVID-19 pandemic alone is her social anxiety.
“If I’m going to the store, I sometimes have to think about what I want to say or I write down a script if I’m calling my doctor,” she says.
“It just makes me a little bit more aware of how I’m communicating with people because I’ve been basically in isolation since (last) March.”
Kingsland visited her parents during the summer, but the rise in COVID-19 cases in Ontario has made visits less frequent.
“There’s only so many conversations you can have with someone telling them how your day was when you’re doing the exact same thing every day.”
Whether you’re living alone or surrounded by family, experts say the pandemic has changed how we navigate relationships. Loneliness driven by social isolation has continued to pose challenges for people to both build and maintain romantic, family and friendly connections.
Yuthika Girme, assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in B.C., says social relationships are the connections we have with people close to us.
“The pandemic has created almost like a pressure cooker test in some sense for our close relationships,” she says.
Girme adds that regardless of one’s relationship status, when people experience long periods of loneliness, it can undermine their physical and mental health, even if people prefer to be alone.
“We just need to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and to each other and realize that this isn’t going to be forever.”
Girme adds it’s not just close relationships that have been impacted but the day-to-day relationships we had as well.
“People are really missing those opportunities to connect with strangers and acquaintances … like bumping into people in the hallway and having a chat about how their weekend was,” she says. “These are all part of what makes us social beings.”
Miriam Kirmayer, clinical psychologist and friendship expert based in Montreal, Que., says the pandemic has also forced people, to some extent, to re-evaluate what relationships they invest in and prioritize.
“I am seeing that a lot of friendships are coming to an end … and there are some people that feel incredibly connected to their friends right now,” she says.
“At a time when so many of us are really concerned about understanding our physical health, it really is worth considering what is the impact,” she says, adding that loneliness exacerbates symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“The more we’re struggling, the harder it is to reach out to connect with other people to find the motivation to do that, to embrace those feelings of vulnerability that are so necessary both for coping with emotional distress but forming friendships.”
‘Feeling more like an obligation’
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lamees Wajahat was excited to use FaceTime and apps like Houseparty to stay in touch with friends but now she says scheduling calls with them feels like a task.
“If I have to schedule calls to talk to you, how is that different from me scheduling a call for work?” she says. “I need it to be casual, but it just started feeling more like an obligation.”
According to Kirmayer, many people have found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle where they feel increasingly disconnected, down or stressed. So, when going through relationship challenges like losing touch with friends, it can be extra painful.
“We’re not necessarily able to navigate that in the same way that we perhaps would normally, like turning to other friends and getting that support.”
When it comes to finding practical strategies to spend time with people virtually, Kirmayer says it is helpful to try and find a way to create a separation between work life and social time.
This can look like moving your laptop to a different space where you are comfortable, and changing sensories by dimming lights or turning on music. These slight changes as well as taking as many breaks as possible from screens can help alleviate feelings of being overwhelmed, she says.
While people are limited in how they can connect with others, Kirmayer also suggests varying between different forms of communication like texts, phone calls, video, distanced walks and even handwritten letters.
Navigating conversations and bonds with family members
While Wajahat’s conversations with her mom about mental health are more progressive than some families, she says the pandemic has made it even more difficult for her to explain where her stresses are coming from.
“She may say things like, ‘I don’t know what you’re upset about because you have a job,’ or that you’re working from home,” she says. “And I know she meant it to probe as to why but to me it just made me feel invalidated.”
Wajahat says parts of her feelings of loneliness have stemmed from her family not understanding how the pandemic has hit her.
“I like to interact with people, I feel that is what motivates me. Not having that and just being limited to my parents, it was hard,” she says.
For Kingsland, she’s found herself being even more appreciative of her parents and feels like her relationship with her parents and siblings has gotten stronger.
“There’s definitely more communication. It’s just hard to find the time to schedule people in because it does feel like more of a task than something that comes naturally,” she says.
In addition, parents have also been struggling to take care of their families, especially young children, Kirmayer says.
“A lot of relationships are being strained.”
‘I just don't feel mentally present’
Wajahat tries to make the most out of dates during a pandemic like getting takeout or watching a movie on an iPad in the car.
“I just don’t feel mentally present,” she says. “He’ll ask me ‘Is everything OK?’ And I don’t have the heart to say I’m not.”
Kingsland has tried dating apps but has found it difficult to make a deeper connection online.
“It’s hard to get a sense of someone’s humour or the way that they are with their mannerisms,” she says, adding that while there is a video option, she chose to weigh people via text before jumping on calls.
“The novelty of talking to someone online all the time kind of wears away. It’s hard to sustain something like that when it is purely online.”
While Girme says both people who are single and those in relationships are finding dating difficult, she says the pandemic has allowed people to slow down and get to build or work on an emotional connection.
“A way of thinking about the silver lining to all of this… is that it does also give us opportunities to slow down, and really think deeply about the relationships that we’re either already in or relationships that we want to be in.”
Navigating and building future relationships
The uncertainty of the pandemic has left many wondering what this means for their relationships in the long run as well as pondering about if this heightened loneliness has changed the way we enter or interact with others for the future.
“I feel there’s always a period where people are calibrating to these types of changes,” says Girme.
“We may see the people are kind of feeling a bit anxious and they don’t know what’s appropriate, what’s not — like, ‘Should I wear a mask?’”
Girme adds that we may do things in the future that, in the past, would have seemed strange to us, but people are inherently social, and when there are opportunities to reconnect, most of us will find ways to transition.
“I think that eventually we will kind of go back to interacting as we were and there may be a new normal,” says Girme.
While Kirmayer says it’s difficult to have a solid answer, she says her biggest piece of advice is to encourage people to be honest with themselves and their need for connection.
“It’s really important to emphasize that being alone and feeling lonely are two distinct experiences,” she says. “We can be alone and feel deeply connected to the people around us, to our social circles, to our wider communities, to ourselves.”
Alone and Apart is an ongoing Global News series tackling issues of loneliness and self-isolation, and creating long-lasting solutions to fight this epidemic within a pandemic. The series will run throughout the month of February. For more visit Alone and Apart.