The mental health impact of loneliness and isolation has become the front page story of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the story of loneliness is not new. The heavy burden of loneliness has been a problem before and will continue to affect us in the future. Loneliness is a shared human experience and all age groups are affected by it..
Loneliness across the lifespan
School children miss social gatherings and activities with their friends. Birthday parties and playdates on Zoom are not the real thing.
Teenagers barricaded in their rooms feel misunderstood, unheard and unappreciated by their parents. Their parents express their worries and disapproval yet they don’t slow down to listen to their teenager.
The single adult struggles to get through the day without having a life partner to talk to.. Missing someone is not a “bad” feeling. Knowing that there is someone out there who thinks of you and dreams of the day when you can meet again. Having no one to think of, can be crushing.
Parents of young children find that their days are full of social interaction and caretaking but have very few meaningful adult conversations and no one to look after their needs.
Couples find themselves being forced to spend long periods of time together in the same space but have little to say to each other. They cannot see their friends and there is nothing to break the monotony of lockdown existence.
Loneliness leading to a downward spiral
We are social beings. We may not always get along with our fellow humans but the lack of social connection has a negative impact on us. Some may be lucky and be able to channel their aloneness into befriending themselves and as a result not suffer from loneliness when alone.
Most of us when pushed far enough into loneliness will struggle to find meaning in the suffering. At its worst, loneliness can lead to significant problems such as depression, physical health problems and addiction.
Loneliness has an impact on our ability to make good decisions as well. Together with lack of money, food and time, loneliness taxes our mental bandwidth and leads us to perform far below optimal levels. The heavy burden of loneliness weighs on us and we shouldn’t downplay its impact.
Digital connectedness is not enough
Technology progresses faster than human nature. We are social beings. Despite all the digital progress we still need physical affection and in-person interactions. We need to sit together with others in the same space and connect emotionally, laugh, play, sing and cry together.
Social media and technology allow us to connect and stay seemingly in touch with others. But human connection that leads us to feel nourished, seen, heard, supported and cared for is difficult to achieve through chat messages and video calls.
Unsatisfying social interaction on digital platforms leave many feeling increasingly lonelier as weeks and months pass by.
Loneliness when with others
Loneliness, however, does not inflict only those who are physically separated from others. If the people close to us do not understand, listen to us and support us, we feel the disconnection even more strongly. We feel deeply hurt when a loved one turns their back on us or refuses to engage with us when we need them.
What you can do when you feel lonely:
- If at all possible, make sure you meet people in-person regularly.
Going for a walk together is probably the easiest and safest way to meet someone. Don’t be too fussy with whom you go for your walks. If your best friend is not available, is this a good time to get to know your neighbor better?
If you do not have anyone in your life to connect with, look for volunteering opportunities, courses and classes. There are people out there willing to talk to you if you reach out. Take action, no matter how difficult it may feel. You will be pleasantly surprised. .
- Contact family and friends when you need social connection.
Do not assume that they are too busy, have their own problems or are not interested. Most of the time when we ask people for help, they are willing to help. However, be mindful of how you ask for help. Demanding and nagging is not going to work. Ask for a positive. Suggest a board game, a bike ride or something fun and energizing.
- Look after yourself.
Lead by behavior, not by emotion. Keep active physically, eat well and engage your mind. Keep in touch with people even if you do not feel like doing it. Make sure you do things that are fun even when you may not feel like doing anything.
The heavy burden of loneliness is not inevitable. Hold on to hope that it will lift one day. You can find some suggestions on how you can look after yourself and love yourself in our Self Guide.
Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in Europe and the Middle East. She has a practice of couples and individual therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.