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Reaching In & Reaching Out - Coping with loneliness & isolation during COVID-19

Loneliness is a common human condition and increasingly considered a hazard to human health. Unlike an illness, where there are diagnostic tests available, loneliness is difficult to diagnose or measure.

Everyone experiences loneliness at some point in their lives to a certain degree. However, persistent loneliness can affect a person’s emotional and physical health, and quality of life.

If you are a cancer patient, loneliness may be something you feel at some point during your cancer journey. Though you may be surrounded by family or loved ones, you may feel that they do not understand what you are going through. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these feelings of loneliness and isolation can be made worse by restrictions to movement and social activity.

It is true that you can be with people but still feel lonely. On the other hand, you can be alone or isolated but not feel lonely! Loneliness, for most part, is a state of mind that causes people to feel empty and disconnected. This is in contrast to isolation, which refers to having few relationships or infrequent contact with others.

Here are some tips to cope with loneliness and isolation that may be useful. They are broadly split into two categories - ‘Reaching In’ and ‘Reaching Out’. Reaching In entails digging deeper within one’s self, while Reaching Out is about being proactive in connecting with others.

Reaching IN

1. Acknowledge your feelings.

Rather than trying to escape them, recognise that they are present and allow yourself to feel. Being able to acknowledge your feelings is the beginning of coping with loneliness and isolation.

2. Have an outlet for expression.

Expressing how you feel internally can be cathartic (provide strong psychological relief). Creative art mediums such as drawing, writing a journal, music, movement and dance are ways to connect deeply with yourself to release negative emotions. These activities can be done when you are by yourself.

3. Learn to be comfortable being alone.

This sounds like the opposite of what you may expect, but learning to enjoy your own company helps to turn loneliness into solitude. Use this time to do things that you enjoy! For example, you can cook a new dish, read a book, complete a puzzle, or learn a new skill or hobby. If there is something you always wanted to do or learn, now is a good opportunity!

4. Find sources of comfort.

It is important to value and be kind to yourself. Here are some suggestions to care for yourself at home:
a) Take a nice, warm bath.
b) Treat yourself to a face massage or face mask.
c) Enjoy afternoon tea accompanied with relaxing music.
d) Cook a healthy and delicious meal for yourself.

5. Connect spiritually.

Spirituality is about finding meaning and purpose in life. Some people find spiritual connection through religion, while others connect with their spiritual selves through meditation and quiet reflection. Get into a rhythm or a routine, for your spiritual care.


Reaching OUT

1. Build social connections.

Take active steps to connect with others, whether through messaging, phone calls or using videos. Use this time to reach out to loved ones or even reconnect with old friends.

2. Help others.

Relationships are a two-way connection. We build stronger relationships with people when we make the effort to show care and concern. This can be helping a neighbour or even reaching out to a friend who needs a listening ear. When we help another person, we are energised by a sense of purpose. However, be mindful of over-caring beyond a level that you are comfortable with and able to handle.

3. Join a cancer support group.

Talking to people with similar experiences can be helpful. While most physical support groups have been suspended, there are online groups for cancer patients that you can join.

Find out more about NCCS Support groups here.

4. Call a hotline if you need to speak to someone.

If you need to speak with someone, but feel that friends and family are not available or able to understand you, you can call the following hotlines:

Find out more about the NCCS Cancer Helpline here.

​National Care Hotline (8am to 12am daily)​1800-202-6868
​NCCS Cancer Helpline​(65) 6225 5655
​Institute of Mental Health Helpline

​(65) 6389-2222

5. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need to.

In some cases, you may need support from mental health professionals. Therapy can provide you with the space to explore and understand emotional problems that could give rise to feelings of loneliness and isolation. You can talk about these issues to your doctor and ask for a referral to a Medical Social Worker.

About our Expert

Saryna Ong is a Master Medical Social Worker/Art Therapist with the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

Her medical interests are in the area of oncology, children and family, as well as grief and loss.