Canadian poet Rupi Kaur couldn’t have anticipated our present moment any more vividly than when she wrote, “the irony of loneliness is we all feel it at the same time.”
The social distancing measures put in place to protect us from COVID-19 have drastically reduced the circle of people we have regular access to, making many of us lonely or isolated.
Add to that the stress many will feel at being constantly exposed to people in their home environment – family, friends, spouses – who they might have weak or antagonistic relationships with, and you’ve got a cocktail of factors that can contribute to a sense of loneliness.
Pioneering loneliness researcher John Cacioppo has said that (in a non-pandemic year) around a quarter of us are experiencing loneliness at a given moment in time.
As reported by the American Psychological Association, loneliness is a genetically heritable trait that varies between individuals, and is intimately associated with cognition. Preliminary research indicates that loneliness can be a predictor of mental decline, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
And compounding its toll on our mental wellbeing, loneliness can have negative impacts on our physical health, too. Loneliness has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of sleep, and weaken immunity. At its most serious, chronic loneliness can increase the odds of an early death by 20%. That’s a drastic figure comparable to the impact of obesity. And yet loneliness, unlike obesity, is infrequently tackled in policy or media.
Depending on how you look at it, loneliness is either a critical mechanism – or an unfavourable by-product – of evolution.
Humans are by nature social creatures. Pioneering researchers have described how the evolution of the human brain, with all its complexity and problem-solving abilities, would not have been possible without the evolution of social abilities.
There’s a significant body of evidence that human populations could only reach a level of technological complexity by existing in large groups, which required sophisticated social abilities. In order to reach this critical mass, we had to evolve social capabilities. We had to evolve to depend on one another.
Researchers have even identified the part of the brain that can produce – or diminish – loneliness. A study by Cacioppo and peers demonstrated that activation in a region called the ventral striatum (VS) reduced one’s sense of loneliness, and that dysfunction in that region can increase one’s sense of loneliness.
But loneliness is not necessarily about the quantity of people around you. In fact, Cacioppo’s research has shown that the quality – not the quantity – of one’s relationships determines whether or not you feel lonely. Too many ‘friends’ can make you feel even more isolated, if the quality of those relationships is lacking.
So, loneliness is a feeling of isolation from others. Of not relating to – or not being understood by – the people around you. Alfred Adler once hypothesized that in fact loneliness causes isolation, rather than the other way around, because some people are so afraid of rejection that they isolate to avoid getting hurt.
But how can we tackle the issue when we live in a world where isolation is an enforced public health measure?
It may seem obvious, but reaching out to loved ones can improve your emotional wellbeing, and remind you that, even if absent, you are still cared for. Schedule regular calls with people you care about, so that you still have something social to look forward to.
Not everyone handles stress in the same way. For some people, the anxiety of a global pandemic causes them to retreat from other people. If someone else needs to be left alone to cope, that does not diminish their feelings towards you. Try not to take it personally.
In some ways, social media is a wonderful tool, especially now. It helps us to keep in touch with others, get a glimpse into their lives, and feel connected even when physically apart. But social media can also have a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. Remember that social media is, for most people, a highlight reel; a slideshow of our best, funniest, brightest moments, omitting all the chaos, sadness and conflict that is a feature of every human life. If it looks like everyone else is having a happier, more connected time in isolation, don’t be fooled into believing it.
The most damaging impacts of a negative feeling – be it loneliness, sadness, shame – come when you ignore that feeling. In psychology, this is known as the ‘avoidance paradox’, that the more you avoid something that is causing you suffering, the more suffering you inflict on yourself. So, tackle it head on. Acknowledge the way you feel, and look for strategies to cope. Give yourself credit for simply coping.
The irony of loneliness in COVID-19 lockdown is that everybody is feeling it. You are not abnormal, you are not deficient, and you are not alone. You can know, rationally, that you are loved, and yet still feel a sense of loneliness. So, talk to somebody about it. You’ll most likely find both support and commonality.
If it helps, try to practice self-soothing. One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with ourselves. If you feel lonely, or as if your needs aren’t being met, imagine yourself as another person, a version of you as a child if that helps, and comfort that other ‘self’ in the way you would anybody else in your life.
Listening to your chosen playlist, putting on the softest piece of clothing you can find, cooking a delicious meal to slowly enjoy- these are little things that comfort the senses, and create soothing experiences.
In a recent article in Psychology Today, Theodore Caputi implored us to take the lessons we learn now about loneliness and the importance of human connection and apply them to the ‘loneliness epidemic’ that is plaguing millions of people globally, especially the young and the elderly.
If you’ve ever experienced loneliness, you will have a particular talent for recognising it, and soothing it, in others. By reaching out to others who might feel lonely, you can help them and help yourself. The chances are, you’ll realise you’re not alone.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has completed a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.