Even the word “lonely” feels lonely, and no wonder: As far as emotions go, loneliness is hardly popular. It’s no friend to mental health, and can up your risk for depression. But it has health baggage that goes beyond the mind.
Loneliness affects the way your body functions by triggering the production of cortisol, which experts call “the stress hormone.” When cortisol floods your system over and over, it can mess with your sleep, weaken your immune system, and make you vulnerable to other health issues. A famous 2013 study even found that chronic loneliness is as harmful to your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (For the record: Don’t puff. It’s so not worth it.)
Throughout history, the loneliest people have typically been the oldest, but the coronavirus has shaken that up, along with everything else. In a study comparing people’s mental states between April 2018 and April 2020, researchers found that younger people were much more likely than older adults to feel mentally distressed now.
“COVID has really upended kids’ worlds,” says Angela Gala, co-founder and executive director of Youth Meditation, a nonprofit in Charlotte, NC, who teaches mindfulness meditation in high schools and universities. “Loneliness has become a bigger thing. Teens are so separated from each other. And COVID has driven a bigger wedge.”
The reasons for this are both individual and communal. Some teens are super focused on the fear of getting COVID, says Gala, while others worry about elderly family members or for parents who have lost their jobs. And as physical distance between us has increased, so has social media use and all-day room sitting (have you left yours today?).
Unfortunately, the one thing that’s decreased is the thing we really need: being together. “We know from lots of research that spending time with people face to face is usually going to decrease loneliness,” says Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
On top of that, there’s allllll the uncertainty. “For teens in particular, there’s a lot of anxiety about the unknown factors—how long is this going to last—and the losses of their rituals,” says Richmond, VA, family therapist Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT, the resident teen expert for the mental health app Talkspace. “A lot of these losses are still catching up, and people are not really able to grieve those losses because they’re still in survival mode.”
One GLU ambassador, 11-year-old Berit Ellwanger, explains these blows in IRL terms: “School’s cancelled, can’t do swim, can’t do dance. I had a friend who was gonna go to camp—that was cancelled. My friend had a drive-through for her birthday, with everyone standing 6 feet apart. I couldn’t give her a hug; I went home and I broke down crying.”
We get it: It’s hard not to have your group around you. Community is important—and when it suddenly disappears, loneliness sneaks in. Since the end of COVID is yet in sight, we corralled tips and strategies, from experts and GLUGirls alike, to help you recreate some semblance of connectedness and, hopefully, of fun.
*Talk on Zoom or Facetime, or host driveway chats, instead of texting. The key is seeing the other person’s face. “The way you can communicate online is fundamentally different from face to face,” says Dr. Twenge. Texting, she explains, “is not always in real time. So if your friend doesn’t reply to your text, you don’t know if it’s because she’s mad at you. That uncertainty can lead to anxiety.”
*Get a headset, and talk to friends while playing video games together. This type of electronic communication is “much closer to hanging out than scrolling Instagram,” says Dr. Twenge, who has been studying Gen Z for years. She charted a loneliness spike in 2012—right at the dawn of smart phones and social media.
(She even wrote a book about it, if you’re looking for a little serious reading: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Sound familiar? Eep.)
*Focus on what’s happening now. When Gala teaches mindfulness meditation in schools, she asks students this question: Are you in the past, the future, or the present? “If the answer is in the present,” she says, “is there really any problem right this moment? Most of the time, the answer is no. My family’s still healthy. I still have food. I still have school.”
Allowing your mind to wander to the future—and what might happen—can riddle you with anxiety. If you need help living in the here and now, try our easy steps to home meditation plus tips for staying in the present during everyday activities.
*Confide in your parents. Feels odd to say there’s been any positive effect of COVID, but it’s true that “teens have increased the amount of time they spend talking to their parents,” says Dr. Twenge. And while you may want to pretend otherwise, “those are still very important relationships.”
Before you “bruh” us, remember that these are the people whose very job it is to help you deal with life. “Just like with a toothache or pain in the back, you need to tell somebody so they can help you,” says Hinkle. “Your parents do care and want to know.”
*Hit up YouTube. GLU’s creative director, Lila Parish, 12, avoids most social media. Key word: most. “It’s kind of hard to believe it when it looks all perfect,” she says. “YouTube is definitely more real, more relatable and also TikTok because of the creativity you find there.”
Indeed, scrolling Insta feeds FOMO and makes it seem like everybody else is livin’ large—all the worse when you feel like poop. But know this: “The reality is we don’t know what the reality is,” says Gala. “A lot of times, you’re making it up because you don’t know.” In other words, don’t create a faux narrative based on imagery; it often masks the real situation.
*Leave. The. House! Please. We beg of you. “Physical exercise and getting outside is extremely healing. Nature has a particular resonance for us, even if you just take a walk down to the park.” The couch will be waiting when you get back–promise.
*Watch old-school shows. Lila and pals are into Friends—“I think it’s because it’s light-hearted and not too serious,” she explains—while GLUGirl Hannah Forde, 13, throws it way, way back. “Do you know a show called Leave It To Beaver?” (Oh hi, Cleaver fam!) “I watch I Love Lucy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Andy Griffith Show,” she says. “Nowadays with TV, with the stuff that people my age would watch, the acting is just awful.” We spot another common denominator: All these shows are comedies. Tune in.
*Pamper yourself. “It’s a form of meditation for me,” says GLU contributing manicurist Lauren Oertel, explaining why she got into the nail-painting business. “Paying attention to detail, paying attention to the task at hand. I find it extremely relaxing–a way to reflect about your day, habits you want to start, things you want to let go of.” Check that manicure kit we’ve been telling you about to get started on Oertel’s recommendation. Other self-care rituals: Slather on a soothing face mask, give yourself a foot massage, or do as Berit does and take a hot bath.
*Be a good bud. Your people need you now. The best way to be a good friend to someone who’s struggling, says Hinkle, is “to listen, tell them you understand, and validate how they feel, but don’t try to fix or change [their issue].” Of course, if there’s a serious concern, particularly one related to safety, the right thing to do—which you should do without guilt—is to set boundaries by saying an adult needs to be involved. “That’s not your thing to carry,” stresses Hinkle.
Looking for ways to rest and relax? Read about mindfulness tips and tricks here.