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Experts Reveal How to Overcome COVID-19 Loneliness at University

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Students across the world have had their university experience flipped upside down this year due to COVID-19.

Most students have, at some point, encountered periods of lockdown, where they’ve been unable to leave their student accommodation for non-essential reasons.

These – often country-wide – periods of isolation left students feeling out of touch and lonely. In fact, in a survey conducted by Save the Student, two thirds of students said their mental health has suffered due to COVID-19.

Dr Meir Shemla is an associate professor in organizational behavior at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Working alongside Dr Shemla is PhD student, Hodar Lam, whose research focuses on the phenomenon of loneliness amongst leaders.

As experts in loneliness, we spoke to Dr Shemla and Lam to find out more about how students can combat coronavirus-induced loneliness at university. 

Understand why you feel lonely

Understand loneliness

In a survey run by the Office for National Statistics during the first UK lockdown, 48.5 percent of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ between April 3rd and May 3rd.

So, what is it about COVID-19 which is making students feel lonely? Why is it still possible to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people? 

To get to the bottom of these questions, it’s important to better understand what causes loneliness.

What causes loneliness?

There are two major sources of loneliness, Lam explained.

The first is when you lack meaningful relationships. For example, having poor support networks or having shallow virtual interactions.

The second reason is holding unrealistically high expectations of social interactions. Lam said unmet expectations are at the “core” of loneliness.

Lam said: “Sometimes individuals feel lonely because they expect too much of others or become cynical about others’ intentions when they approach or contact them.” 

He gives the example of students having a “rose colored” view of university life, which during the coronavirus, might be vastly different to reality. 

Lam said: “Students might see university as a setting a stage for their career, joining student associations, societies, and sports teams that define their identities and/or building a sense of independence, in terms of finances and leaving the family ‘nest’.” 

He added that students tend to feel frustrated when these expectations can no longer be a reality.

Additionally, Lam explained that learning at home might not meet students’ anticipations of university life. They may miss the everyday interactions of in-person learning.

Lam said: “Many students are at a life stage where peers and romance are important for their identity development, through being accepted and approved as a close friend or a partner.

“The social interactions with peers and romantic partners are key to the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. 

Inequality in loneliness

It’s also worth noting that there is an inequality in the way loneliness is experienced, with some groups of students being more likely to experience loneliness than others, explained Dr Shemla.

Dr Shemla said: “Male students and international students are likely to experience more loneliness than female and local students, respectively.”

He explained that this may be due to the nature of their social interactions.

On average, male students tend to engage less in self-disclosure and are less likely than female students to share information about themselves, he explained. 

Similarly, international students are less likely to have the same level of emotional support as local students, potentially making them feel more isolated and experience feelings of loneliness. 

Have fewer, higher quality relationships

Have fewer, higher quality relationships

Having fewer, higher quality relationships rather than many superficial ones can help to reduce loneliness, Dr Shemla and Lam found in their research.

Dr Shemla said: “The surprising thing about loneliness is that it is often disconnected from the number of social connections a person has.

“The reason for this is that loneliness is not necessarily a result of isolation, but rather of poor social connections. It is the lack of meaningful and deep connections that result in feeling lonely.

“Being surrounded by many others makes the lack of such connections only the more salient. The more connections one has, the less likely they are to be deep, personal, and meaningful.”

Be willing to let your guard down

Be willing to let your guard down

Social media is packed with people posting their achievements during lockdown. In reality, many people are feeling sluggish and unproductive – but feel a stigma in admitting this.

“Loneliness is often stigmatized, meaning that some people worry or even find it shameful to admit that they feel lonely,” said Lam.

Lam explained that sharing personal, sensitive information with others, such as admitting your worries, setbacks and habits is an excellent way to build and maintain relationships. 

He said: “Through intimate conversations, students can get a sense of emotional synchrony, and communicate a sense of trust.”

This might be through sharing feelings or by opening up to someone and showing you trust them as a friend.

Dr Shemla said: “Across our studies we find that a useful way of increasing the quality of a social relationship and decreasing feelings of loneliness is to engage in self-disclosure. 

“Seek opportunities to share your feelings and reveal more of yourself. Self-disclosure is likely to be reciprocated by others and to lead to a feeling of connectedness.”

Make an effort to help others

Make an effort to help others

According to Lam, one of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness is to consciously make an effort to help those around you.

Lam said: “There may be many others who are feeling lonely at the same time. Simply through talking about loneliness with others can reduce loneliness, as well as normalize the experience.” 

“Helping and showing kindness to others can also make students see their relationships as more meaningful.

“Kindness is a choice. We all have the control and autonomy to be kind and nice to others, and this virtue is particularly important because it could save some from loneliness and other negativity.”

Have intimate conversations with friends and family

Have intimate conversations with friends and family

In periods of isolation, reaching out to friends and family is more important than ever. Check in with your family and friends, said Lam. Make sure to be honest about your loneliness and find out how they’re really feeling. 

While talking to friends and family try to keep conversations as positive as possible, said Lam.

For example, conversations invoking feelings of nostalgia, such as talking about a trip you took, a Christmas celebration or a new year count down, can help reduce loneliness. “It creates a sense of emotional warmth,” explained Lam.

Keeping conversations intimate can also help combat loneliness. Lam suggested asking open-ended questions to encourage your friends and family to talk about themselves and to avoid talking solely about yourself.

Reach out to friends who might be feeling lonely

Reach out to friends who might be feeling lonely

It’s probably not just you who’s feeling lonely. Adopting a “pay it forward” mindset can help you help a friend and make you feel more connected to your friends and family, said Lam.

He said: “Think about the last time someone reached out and helped you when you felt lonely and turn the positive feeling into motivation to help others.”

It’s also important to practice empathy, said Lam. “Learn to listen actively and talk less. This involves listening to the feelings and the unspoken between the lines,” he said.

Dr Shemla advised being more proactive in your existing relationships. He said: “Being more proactive with regards to initiating social interactions or self-disclosure helps to change one’s perception of the extent to which he or she is a victim or in control over the situation.”

Get help if you need it

Get help if you need it

However, if you’re still finding it difficult to stop those feelings of loneliness, it might be best to contact a professional.

“Most universities have psychologists for counselling services,” said Lam. “I would also encourage students to leverage any mentoring opportunities, which help both their career and socio-emotional needs.”

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Written by Chloe Lane
A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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