PROVO — Here’s some irony for you: The stress caused by isolating from the coronavirus increases your chances of catching the coronavirus.

Going outside can make you sick, then. But so can not going outside.

The issue behind this paradox is loneliness, a pandemic in its own right that is being more fully exposed — and increased — by the pandemic.

A number of studies conducted over the past several months suggest that there has been a 20% to 30% rise in loneliness due to COVID-19-mandated social distancing.

Although Julianne Holt-Lunstad would prefer calling it physical distancing instead.

“We want to be physically distant but stay socially connected,” she says.

Holt-Lunstad is an expert in the field of loneliness. She is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, where her research over the past decade has, among other things, helped quantify the significant damage loneliness can have on our physical health and, in turn, our lifespan.

The statistics say that a person who is chronically lonely has a 26% greater risk of dying. That’s roughly the same mortality forecast for someone who is clinically obese, drinks alcohol to excess, or smokes 15 cigarettes a day.

And loneliness isn’t an isolated problem. Further studies show that an estimated third of U.S. adults age 45 and older report feeling lonely, while the percentage for younger social media-obsessed Americans may be even worse. (In one survey, 70% of young adults reported sometimes or always feeling alone.)

Professor Holt-Lunstad just finished participating in a “virtual action forum” with her colleagues at the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness, a national organization whose mission is spelled out in its title. She is the chairwoman of the group’s Scientific Advisory Council and moderated a panel discussion at the event.

“We talked about what we can do as individuals, as a community, as a larger society, that might have an impact on this critical issue, particularly at this important time,” she says.

It’s not difficult to make the case that the need to stay connected has never been greater, or more complicated, that it is now that we’re being told to stay apart.

If you’re feeling alone in 2020, you’re not alone.

“Our bodies and our brain expect the proximity of others,” says Holt-Lunstad. “When we don’t have that proximity, when we feel like we have to face everything on our own, it makes it all so much harder.”

The professor cites “a really interesting study that had participants rate the steepness of a hill they climbed while wearing a heavy backpack. What the researchers found was that not only did participants rate the hill steeper than it really was when they hiked it alone, but when they were in the presence of others they rated it as less steep.

“Neuroscience evidence suggests that loneliness is a biological cue much like hunger and thirst. But in the current atmosphere where it’s seen as unpleasant to seek social connection, it’s as if we’re all incredibly thirsty but we’re being told the water’s not safe to drink.”

That dilemma, she says, spells out her biggest concern: “How do we stay connected while at a distance?”

On one hand, she worries “that people will use my research as an excuse to disregard many of the safety precautions that have been recommended.”

On the other hand, “I worry that we will isolate even more.

“The challenge is: how do we not put ourselves in a situation where we are trading one risk for another? How can we meet both goals?”

She does see a possible silver lining among all these questions.

“My hope is that what we are going through will help people recognize just how important our relationships are, not only for our emotional well-being but for our physical well-being,” she says. “The pandemic has given everyone a small glimpse into what it’s like for a small percentage of the population that was already chronically isolated, that was already homebound. Hopefully we can not only gain greater empathy, but recognize the urgency for solutions.”