Most of us have been under some level of lockdown for a better part of a year, resulting in a drastic drop in our social activities. These restrictive measures are intended to reduce the spread of a potentially deadly illness, but could they be breeding another problem?
“It’s because that age is all about socializing,” DeLuca said. “They're very depressed.”
But it isn’t just teens and seniors. DeLuca says loneliness is an emotion that can hit any one of us. And when it hits, it can be devastating.
Conditions for LonelinessPeople are, by nature, social creatures. DeLuca says that when we do seek solitude, it’s on our own terms.
Loneliness, however, doesn't happen by choice, and the conditions for it vary from person to person. For example, you could be in a room full of people and still feel profoundly isolated. You may also find yourself completely alone yet feel no loneliness.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen says that one of the biggest surprises he has witnessed during the lockdown is the number of patients reporting a marked improvement in their mental health—a trend which they link directly to the isolation rules of COVID-19.
“These were generally introverted patients that suffered from anxiety, social phobia, and panic. They were lonely prior to the pandemic, but, oddly, feel less lonely now,” Thiessen said. “Most of these individuals attributed their improvement to the sense that their tendency to self-isolate had become normalized through the shelter in place orders. Others emphasized the sense that they no longer felt alone in being overwhelmed by anxiety and panic.”
“There may be plenty of friends, but no close ones. There may even be dates or romantic relationships, but the quality and depth of these connections is poor,” Cantor said. “When this happens over an extended period of time, chronic loneliness sets in, and this is where the real emotional, mental, and physical damage can set in.”
We probably all feel loneliness at some point in our lives, but it’s usually temporary. Once we find some connection, the loneliness fades, and we feel whole again.
But Cantor says that people who fail to find meaningful connections for an extended period of time can give up in frustration, cutting themselves off even more. They stop trusting everyone, and experience deep shame over their inability to connect.
Pain of SeparationHave you ever ached from loneliness? Research validates it, showing a connection between isolation and pain. A UCLA study found the neurological pathways in our brain that light up when we register danger from a physical injury or illness are the same pathways that activate when we feel socially excluded.
“Shortly before my baby was born, two friends of mine knocked at the door. I hadn’t had in-person interaction with anyone for over a month. I didn’t even know how to handle a knock at the door,” Musson said. “When I realized it was my friends and they had brought me treats, I asked if I could please hug them. I hadn’t touched anyone outside of my immediate family in weeks. I am not a hugger, but I needed human touch.”
Where restrictive orders are still in place, we’re only permitted to face the public from behind a mask and at a distance of at least six feet. Needless to say, such conditions make the connection we crave much more difficult.
“I have always loved grocery shopping. It’s by far my favorite errand. But now I’ve come to dread it,” Musson said. “People aren’t friendly. Masks hide personality so it’s harder to even make remarks in passing to other shoppers. I feel like I’m shopping with a bunch of robots.”
Mirroring is a trait humans share with many animals. It allows us to read nuances of emotion and intentions of those we interact with. Of course, we can still convey messages without it, but some of the most informative and captivating details of our social exchanges are often lost in translation.
Coping With LonelinessDeLuca also champions virtual platforms to buffer the pain of loneliness, but she admits these are a poor substitute. What we really need, and thrive on, are genuine in-person connections. And a lack of this vital human interaction may be affecting us more deeply than we imagine.
“Some people will think they have it all together, but they're not sleeping, and they’re self-medicating more,” DeLuca said.
“We have to feel like we have some reason for being,” she said.
Some turn to the television when they’re alone, either to alleviate boredom, or just to have some voice droning in the background to give the illusion of company.
Especially when there’s no place to go, and nobody to see, television can become a reliable companion. But DeLuca warns that some media can actually worsen our loneliness, because it stirs up our already agitated stress hormones. She says the news in particular can trigger our fight-or-flight response, and it can be particularly damaging if we consume news just before bed.
“We think it keeps us knowing what's really going on, but we also have this subliminal recurring concept of death, violence, social injustice, and so forth,” DeLuca said. “A lot of what we dream can be the last thing we talked about, saw on TV, read, or whatever. So it's very important that we have self-awareness and are intentional about the information that's being processed in our brains.”
Cantor says monitoring our thoughts can go a long way to lessening the impact of loneliness. She says that in a time when our fears and despair are being amplified with the isolation of lockdowns, it can help a lot just to become more aware of your feelings.
Instead of closing yourself off out of fear, reach out and look for opportunities to foster new connections.
“Looking for the good in ourselves and other people, especially in this time of social distancing, politics, and economic instability, is another simple but profound way that we can cope,” Cantor said. “There is still so much good out there in the world–either in the faces of our kids, or pets, or neighbors. It's crucial to connect to that and keep it front and center."