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Managing Loneliness, in the face of COVID-19

In this age of connectivity, social media and smartphones, the last few weeks have taught us just how vital it is to see each other in person. Whilst we are all benefiting from the ability to stay in touch virtually, we are realising what is missed when we can’t be in the same room, walk down the same street or sit across from each other in the local coffee shop.

Sadly, some members of our community have experienced social distancing and isolation for many years. Not because of an infectious disease, but due to the simple story of loneliness. Some members of the elderly population, those who are economically challenged or those who are homeless may not have access to broadband or smart gadgets. Imagine what that kind of loneliness may be like?

We are all social animals, albeit some of us who suffer with social anxiety or mobility issues may not be feeling the impact of COVID-19 restrictions in the manner most of us are. Regardless of this, we all have a basic need to feel cared for and to have a sense of belonging. It is deeply human for us to feel love and regard for others too, for what is life without connection? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Harlow’s attachment studies using monkeys, are still helpful models to help us understand this truth, which seems universal across species.

In a BBC commissioned loneliness study some months back, 55,000 people were included from across the UK. Some people spoke of feeling alone since the loss of a loved one, and how they reminisce about lost togetherness, almost every place they visit. Others shared their sense of feeling marginalised or excluded from society, due to disability. Still more of how hectic their work schedules have become, such that they no longer have time to keep up with their family or friends – or even keep up with themselves! Whilst some of these factors remain pertinent in the COVID-19 period, the idea of having no time to talk to others, or spend time with ourselves, is now quite laughable. We have time…lots of it.

Notwithstanding the national and international effort just now, even prior to COVID-19 we were fighting to save lives. Loneliness was, and still remains, a 21st Century epidemic. To illustrate the scale of the problem, research by the British Red Cross (2016) reports on more than 9 million people in the UK (equivalent to almost 1 in 5 people!) saying they are “always” or “often lonely”. It’s a quiet, undetected problem, because 2 in 3 people who report loneliness, also say they don’t feel comfortable admitting to it. Perhaps the current health crisis is giving people more permission to say how they feel? Certainly, we are seeing a trend in outpourings of feelings and more emotional intimacy on social media channels, than I can recall having been present in recent history. Maybe this is one of the legacies that COVID-19 will leave us with, although it is no counterbalance for what it has taken away.

Until Coronavirus, to say you are lonely was difficult, embarrassing or even shaming. Perhaps because one feared it would convey a sense of underdeveloped social skills, or some flaw in the relationships we have made with family or community. Or more simply, it may have signalled a lack of ‘get up and go’, given we could not possibly be lonely if we just joined a few groups, or left the house more. Yet, psychologically speaking, I have come to learn through working with thousands of clients over the years that the more alone we are, the less safe we feel in the world. A lack of safety leads us to be more guarded and lacking in trust. This in turn does little to draw people in and rather compounds the problem, with far reaching consequences.

That loneliness impacts on emotional health is of course obvious - it creates a sense of isolation, lack of social support and a felt disconnection from the world. Depression and anxiety are part and parcel of this experience. But research by Dr VH Murthy, former Surgeon General of the USA actually makes links between social isolation and harm to physical health. So much so that the risk factors for early death through loneliness are comparable to a person smoking 15 cigarettes per day or suffering with obesity. How may this work? Well, the immune response seems to become supressed in a person who feels persistently isolated, because one’s thoughts and feelings become caught within a perpetual “stress response”. If we are frequently on edge, have no outlet for expressing our feelings and have only superficial connections to others, it impacts directly on our cardiovascular function – raised heart rate, blood pressure and more physically tense muscles and nerves. Prolonged or repetitive experiences like this are sure to age the body prematurely, because we are after all biological machines, with all the vulnerability of becoming worn down.

On the other hand, social connection has a curative effect. We know that smiling at someone, communic