The Pandemic of Loneliness
Even before Covid-19, we were suffering from a global pandemic. Not one that attacked our lungs and hearts, but our minds; a pandemic of loneliness.
But most deny it, wanting to present to self and others as strong and mature, independent people.
Loneliness from social isolation is nothing new. People have been writing about it for centuries. It’s beyond poetic, although many poets have addressed it from Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson. It’s a biological need that forces us to seek social interactions. It was here before Covid-19. It was here before the digital revolution that made working at home a viable alternative to going to the office.
And it’s worldwide.
In Japan, half a million people live as modern-day hermits. They are recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time. Psychologist Junko Okamoto dubs Japan the “loneliness superpower.” She told the Financial Times: “Society is not doing enough to address loneliness and people don’t want to admit how unhappy they are.”
In the Great Britain, loneliness had become such a serious problem that the Prime Minister appointed a minister for loneliness in 2018.
The need for others is hard wired. Being with other human beings has always been a way to protect and support our families and communities. It ensured we would continue to survive. Since the beginning of civilization, people have lived with others in their families and tribes. The only times when they were alone was if they had been abandoned or ostracized, left to perish without the support of the community.
On an unconscious level we still believe we need to be in close quarters with others to feel part of the world, to feel appreciated and worthy of caring. When we don’t have regular human contact, we feel stressed, anxious and lonely. To make matters worse, we lack motivation to do the things that could help us reach out to others and form new friends and relationships.
When not addressed, the stress of loneliness has biological repercussions. These include lowered metabolism and weight gain, heart palpitations, sleeplessness, and decreased libido. Loneliness actually suppresses the immune system making us vulnerable to viruses, bacteria and other illness.
So, while we may be protecting our physiological selves from the effects of Covid-19 through social distancing, our emotional selves, our healthy spirits and our well-functioning bodies are suffering with negative psychological and biological consequences.
But there is an upside.
Loneliness, as pretty much all of us experience it, is controlled by the brain. Although loneliness is considered a negative feeling, science shows that it is actually something we need in order to overcome a situation that may put us at risk. Just like physical pain, this is the way your body tells you there is something wrong.
Social pain is real.
The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary and recognized as threats to our survival. The social pain of loneliness demonstrates that social connection is a necessity, not a luxury.
Research shows that the loneliness caused by social isolation has the equivalent adverse impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s been found to be a greater threat to health than obesity, and is linked to an increased risk of a wide variety of health problems. In one study that’s highly relevant to our current situation, students who reported higher levels of loneliness responded less powerfully to flu vaccinations.
Loneliness affects millions of people. People hunger for connection. We wither without it. If this sounds familiar, you may need an ally, a helping hand to reaching out to others.
My work focuses on people dealing with stress, anxiety and loneliness. I’ve been there myself and have learned how to help myself and others reconnect to the world. Please feel free to contact me for ideas.
Dr Sharon Livingston. 603 505 5000, my cell.