Humans are incredibly social creatures, and our connection to others allows us to survive and thrive. However, feeling disconnected from others is a natural response as we adjust to our new lives in COVID-19 quarantine. And feeling lonely and isolated can have a substantial impact on our mental and physical health.
There’s a difference between being alone and feeling alone.
Loneliness is an unpleasant experience we can often have when we feel our network of social connections is deficient in some significant way1.
Although it is usually associated with feelings of emptiness and rejection, ‘being with others doesn’t mean you’re going to feel connected, and being alone doesn’t mean you're going to feel lonely’2.
This is a really important point as we get used to life within our new bubble for the next little while. You might still be surrounded by flatmates and whanau, and feel incredibly lonely; or conversely you may be isolating on your own and still feel a sense of connectedness and belonging.
Left unchecked, loneliness can have a significant impact on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Sadly, loneliness was already a growing global health issue long before our current period of enforced hibernation3.
According to Professor Merryn Gott, an end-of-life care expert from the University of Auckland's School of Nursing, ‘we now know that loneliness can be as damaging to health as obesity or smoking’4. Research also suggests that the mortality rate can increase for lonely people as a ‘lack of social connections can spark inflammation and changes in the immune system’5.
It doesn’t help that for many of us loneliness has a negative connotation
It’s fair to say that most of us don’t like to admit that we feel lonely, as it has a certain stigma attached to it. Studies suggest that men in particular don’t always like to admit being lonely6.
So, given the potential health impacts from the fact that we are not likely to admit we feel lonely, how can we support ourselves and others if we start to notice increasing feelings of disconnection during the coming weeks?
The good news is there are lots of ways to recognise and positively work with loneliness when you notice it in yourself and others:
- First recognise what’s going on
This sounds obvious, but for some of us it can be the hardest part to acknowledge, especially if you have a habit of avoiding or suppressing unpleasant feelings. Work hard to be aware of feelings of isolation and disconnection as soon as they arise. Think of loneliness like a weather pattern passing through with associated thoughts (such as “I am feeling alone and anxious right now”), feelings in the body (such as feeling heavy, achy, queasy), mood changes (such as sudden sadness, agitation or even anger) and impulses (desire to withdraw from others, and drink or eat more than you usually do).
- Know that it is okay to feel lonely
Even if you’re in a house with others, feeling isolated and alone can still be a perfectly natural human emotion to experience. This is nothing to hide from or be ashamed of, especially right now. Remind yourself that there are probably thousands of Kiwis feeling the same way you do. You might be feeling lonely, but remember you are not alone. If anything, this virus has united us for a common purpose. Take a moment to feel part of that greater connection, even if you feel emotionally apart from others.
- Allow, allow, allow
‘Allowing’ what is here to be here, without judging how you are feeling. This is a core component of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is aimed at supporting people managing mental health challenges using research-based mindfulness training7.
Allowing requires us to not only recognise but accept and be with feelings of separation and disconnection, which often doesn't feel pleasant!
If you notice feelings of loneliness, try saying something to yourself like ‘I don’t like this feeling, but can I just allow it to be here?’ If the feeling is overwhelming you, perhaps see if you can start by working around the edges. Be gentle and kind with yourself and give yourself full permission to feel whatever you are feeling. This is not about dwelling on feelings, but fully acknowledging them as best as you can right now.
Working with feelings of loneliness
Once you’ve recognised how you are feeling there are a number of ways you can support yourself. Here are some top picks:
- Try Mindfulness meditation
While this might seem fluffy to some, research suggests that mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases feelings of social connection by developing acceptance toward our present-moment experiences8. Mindfulness is an innate human capacity that enables people to intentionally focus on what they experience in the moment with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care9.
- Have the courage to connect
Life in lockdown is forcing us to find different and sometimes unfamiliar ways to connect with each other, but fear of new technology may dissuade us from trying out new ways to communicate with friends and family. If this is you, the best thing to do is to recognise uncertainty and fear around new technology and give it a go anyway!
Ask someone more tech savvy to give you a helping hand to get set up (over the phone if they don’t live with you). Then once you’re comfortable using online technology, consider branching out and seeing if any of your local community groups have moved online.
- Connect in a way that has meaning to you
John Cacioppo, Director of the University of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, explains that ‘one of the biggest misunderstandings is what loneliness is. People equate it with being alone, and that leads to attempts to solve the problem, that don’t solve the problem at all’10. Just being around people online or in person won’t necessarily make you less lonely, unless it's meaningful.
Ultimately only you know what kind of connection truly makes you feel seen, heard and understood. Ask yourself, what does meaningful connection look like for me? It’s a bit different for all of us. Maybe it's booking a regular coffee chat via skype with a close friend, so you know it’s a consistent spot in the diary. Perhaps it's being with a whole group of mates having a bit of fun on social apps, or a good old-fashioned out of the blue phone call to an old friend.
- Take in the good
Dr Rick Hanson, Psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, believes that thanks to our ancient ancestors we humans unfortunately have a built-in negativity bias. It is what kept us safe in more primitive times, but unfortunately even in our modern age it's still a default factory setting. This means we naturally overemphasise the negative and minimise the positive.
Thanks to developments in neuroscience we know that what we practice, we get good at. This means that practicing savouring those good feelings makes it easier for us to recognise and appreciate them in the future.
So, when we feel good, like when we feel connected to others, take a moment to stop and savour that connection. Dr Hanson reminds us that ‘the more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they'll be wiring up positive neural structures’11. He advises that ‘most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that's fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row - instead of getting distracted by something else12. By doing that you are literally hardwiring yourself for connection rather than loneliness.
- Have an action plan
If you find your thoughts in a tailspin of worry and loneliness, sometimes the most skilful thing you can do is deliberately choose to move your attention to something you find enjoyable. Make a list and stick it on the fridge, inside of your wardrobe door, or somewhere on your phone. Add things that are pleasant such as taking a short walk, spending time outside in the garden or with a pet, making a hot drink, chatting to a friend or family member, listening to a podcast, doing some stretching or yoga, watching one of your favourite movies again, or reading something uplifting.
- Be kind, do good
Doing good makes us feel good. In the face of world suffering, extreme uncertainty and isolation, we cannot help but feel emotional pain. Without activating compassion, these feelings can leave us highly anxious, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Part of having compassion is the desire to reduce suffering in ourselves and others. It activates the body's calming system during a perceived threat and encourages feelings of safeness and security13. Activating compassion for others could mean listening in a caring way to how others are feeling, or offering practical help to those in direct need.
- Know when to ask for professional help
Anxiety and loneliness are very normal during this time. If you are currently getting support with your mental health, continue with this if possible, and notice if your symptoms are getting worse. If you would like extra support right now talk to your GP, access EAP or call 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
Debbie founded BlueSkyMinds to facilitate science-based mindfulness programmes that have a sustained, measurable impact on individuals and organisations. BlueSkyMinds has a nationwide team of highly experienced facilitators that have a business background and have completed a minimum 12-month teacher training qualification. That allows them to deliver a globally recognised, evidence-based curriculum in a way that aligns to the business environment. www.blueskyminds.org