Are You Really That Busy or Just *Really* Lonely?

The COVID-19 quarantine has made running from your feelings of loneliness next to impossible.

A group of friends hanging out
Photo: Artem Varnitsin/EyeEm/Getty

In October 2019, I had what I can honestly say was one of the most brutal breakups I've ever experienced: It came out of nowhere, I was totally heartbroken, and I had no answers to any of the trauma I was experiencing. The first thing I did? Booked a vacation, worked around the clock, and packed my social life to the brim. Over the next few months, I don't think I experienced what staying at home alone felt like. Translation: I just got so busy that I wouldn't have to find out.

I know I'm not alone: Pre-pandemic, statistics showed that Americans were busier than ever before, up 400 percent since 1950. In fact, a recent study by the US Travel Association found that more than half of all Americans aren't using all their vacation days, amassing a record 768 million unused vacation days in 2018. But even if you don't consider yourself the work-a-holic type, it's likely you kept yourself busy with other things such as traveling, appointments, social outings, and endless to-dos to the point where carving out you-time was something that didn't happen unless it was on the schedule. Sound familiar? Thought so.

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and busy bees like you and I were forced to slow down or stop entirely, there was a kind of collective questioning of why we were running around like crazy all the time. Were we ~really~ that busy, or were we just trying to escape some truly uncomfortable feelings?

Now, for those still lucky enough to be working, juggling a job has only become more demanding, and with happy hours, vacations, and weddings having largely been put on hold, your social life is no longer there to offer respite from the grind.

"The designated divide between work and play is even more blurred now with WFH and constant catching up with the news," explains psychotherapist Matt Lundquist. "People don't distinguish between when work ends and begins, and because they don't get solace from their intimate relationships and social life anymore, they throw themselves even more into other habits like work and exercise." Pre-pandemic, we often used our social lives and schedules to avoid uncomfortable feelings, and now, it seems we're forcing ourselves to stay busy in other ways to cope.

According to Cigna's 2020 Loneliness Index, a national survey that explores feelings of loneliness across the U.S., 61 percent of all working adults (of any relationship status) report feeling increasingly isolated, which increased from only 12 percent back in 2018. This surge of loneliness coupled with the coronavirus pandemic taking away the usual distractions means these feelings of isolation can become extremely overwhelming.

"It's definitely true that the internet has created a way for us to work all the time," says Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T. "But we're also seeing a huge shift in the way we perceive intimacy, with many people being scared of their relationships or the fact that they don't have one that they work or find other hobbies in order to avoid those uncomfortable feelings." At the crux of it all, therefore, is a really deep sense of loneliness. Perhaps you don't have a significant other or a close-knit support system of family or friends you feel you can lean on, but this loneliness can affect anyone, even those in committed relationships. Perhaps your partner and you are disconnected so, despite the proximity and the relationship status, you still feel like you aren't being heard or seen.

Pre-pandemic, or even know, you're probably not really as busy as you think, says Wright. Instead, you're actually just creating opportunities to hustle so that you don't have the time to really think about the loneliness or whatever emotion that feels uncomfortable to sit with or acknowledge. It's easy to distract yourself from the parts of your life where you think you've "failed," be it a relationship that just ended, not getting promoted at work, a toxic friendship, or issues with self-confidence and self-esteem. "It's a simple way to ignore overarching feelings of unworthiness, essentially," says Wright. "However, what people don't understand is throwing yourself into one aspect of your life isn't really going to change the outcome in the area of your life you're avoiding."

Think about it: If you worry about being alone because you're the only single one in your group of friends, it's easier to throw yourself into work in order to not think about it. Or if you're really worried about the fact that your relationship is on the rocks and communicating about it is uncomfortable, you can easily keep Zooming with friends or take the dog on yet another walk so that you go to bed too home too late to talk about it. "People are there, but they're not really there," explains Lundquist. "They may think throwing themselves into other aspects of their lives is going to help fix the issues they're having with friends and significant others, but this avoidant behavior is actually causing more problems than it's fixing." It's also important to note that "being busy also offers a sense of pride," he says. "It's much easier to focus on what society has conditioned you to believe makes you successful, as opposed to focusing on your intimate relationships."

Right now, during the pandemic, a lot of people are either cohabitating with significant others and it's causing more fights than expected, or are lonelier than ever without the ability to hang out with friends or go on IRL dates. So, what do you do? You work, organize your closets, or spend hours making elaborate meals in the kitchen — basically, you do whatever else you can to stay "busy."

However, "these feelings will absolutely pop up way worse later on, and you'll be so emotionally and physically exhausted, you won't know how to handle them," says Wright. This can be particularly scary if you're someone who has always avoided how you feel, but being attuned to your emotions is a vital part of the process, and right now, you truly do have the time to sit with those feelings of loneliness thanks to forced isolation, says Wright. You can journal, meditate, have uncomfortable conversations, and really sit with your emotions in a way you never could (or frankly, would) before.

Wright also encourages healing the core beliefs behind the fear of really ~feeling,~, well, your feelings. Behind every emotion is something in the subconscious. "If you feel like you're always going to be alone, sit with that feeling — is it because an ex said it to you at some point? Is it because you think all your relationships have ended badly and it's your fault?" elaborates Wright. "A belief is just a thought you keep thinking, and the key is to reprogram that belief and find new ways of responding to the situations around you." This might sound really heavy, but the payoff is well worth the challenge. (

Who knows? You may even realize, through this attempt at navigating your emotional minefield, that certain people, jobs, or hobbies aren't serving you anymore. "If the relationship isn't for you, or if you realize your loneliness stems from simply needing to take some time to sort through your friendships and issues in relationships, wouldn't you want to know now rather than later?" says Wright. "The thing about feelings is they feel really scary, but once you take the time to acknowledge and appreciate them, they can reveal so much about yourself."

"We also need to be more compassionate with ourselves," says Lundquist. "Sitting with feelings can be really scary for some people — like actually asking themselves what they need for the day, whether that's a run in the park, social interaction, or just time alone. We've avoided our feelings for so long that we run on autopilot, and don't acknowledge how we feel — instead, we do what we think we should do, rather than what we want to do." By focusing on the external rather than the internal, you feel lonelier than ever, even when you're the only one putting such high expectations on yourself. After all, nobody told you that you need to exercise six days a week — you did — and you have the ability to change that narrative whenever you want.

Using work, exercise, travel, or surface-level conversations in a crowded bar (pre-COVID) as a crutch to avoid what other things may be coming up for you can be really easy to fall back into, and the only way to break these patterns is to become aware of them. "It may be scary facing these things, but the payoff is huge," says Lundquist. "It'll lead to a much happier, fulfilled life at the end of the day."

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