The coronavirus epidemic is undeniably challenging our mental health. Lockdowns and social-distancing change the way we socialize and restrict us from seeing our friends and family. We’re unable to go out for dinner, socialize at the bar, or join a family gathering. Social relationships enrich and give meaning to our lives. The lack of these social interaction can take an emotional and physical toll on our body. As we are now mandated to shelter in place, we struggle with the inability to see and interact with people. Combatting loneliness during the COVID-19 era is more important than ever.
My renewed interest on the topic of loneliness started with an NPR podcast I listened to a few days ago. It was an interview with Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. As Surgeon General, he traveled the country and discovered the national presence of loneliness. He recently published a book about the topic, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”. To see that one of the top U.S. health officials now studies the implications of loneliness, highlights the importance of addressing the issue.
Fun Fact: The U.K. is incredibly proactive in addressing mental health issues and loneliness. In 2018, the U.K. set up the Ministry of Loneliness to tackle loneliness. The Ministry has a broad range of projects and public campaigns to encourage social connection, de-stigmatize loneliness, and collect better research. In combatting loneliness during the COVID-era, the U.K. revitalized its June 2019 campaign, “Lets Talk Loneliness”. In addition, funding has been set aside for the cause. National loneliness organizations will receive £5 million of aid to continue their mission. Also, small organizations that help people stay connected in local communities are given priority status to receive money from a £750 million package created to support charities.
Like various mental health illnesses, I believe that there is stigma around admitting to feeling lonely. With all the social media in our lives, ‘we are more connected than ever’. Distance is no longer barrier and we can send instant messages with a click of the finger. How can we be lonely when we have so many ways to connect? And yet, loneliness is on the rise. In January 2020, a study found that three in five americans feel lonely – an 18% increase since 2018. Does sending direct messages to friends fulfill our social needs to the same extent as physical interactions? Evidently not.
Loneliness is not a recent phenomenon. Like most of our behaviors and bodily/emotional responses, loneliness has a biological purpose. Murthy explains that as hunters and gatherers, humans learned to rely on each other for survival. Being separated from the group caused an immediate stress response. The stress was a biological signal to express the importance of returning to the group and ensure survival. Like our ancestors, if [feel that] we are not part of a community, this stress signal sets in. If this stress persists too long, it has detrimental effects. This long term stress is what we call chronic loneliness.
What is chronic loneliness? Loneliness is a negative feeling that arises when our social needs are not met. If this feeling persists for a long time, it can have negative impacts on our well-being.
There is consistent research that social isolation and loneliness negatively affect our cardiovascular system and our mental health. Multiple studies show a link between loneliness and mortality. Also, an interesting study was conducted that assessed the affects of loneliness by age groups. The effects (shown in the chart below) can overlap ages and/or be unique to a specific age group.
Both in ancient times and now, social interactions allow us to feel safe and thrive. As humans, we are most happy when we feel that the quantity and quality of our social needs are met. Thus, it is important that we pay attention to our social relationships, especially now.
What to do to combat loneliness:
- Reach out to friends and family. By taking away our ability to see friends and friends, the pandemic exposed how important social interactions are in our lives. The current situation gives most of us a lot more time. We can use this time to reconnect with friends that we haven’t talked to in ages. This is an opportunity to increase the quantity and/or quality of our social relationships.
- Take the time to video call your friends and family, even if for just 5 minutes. It isn’t fulfilling enough to send messages. Direct messages don’t involve facial cues, and other nonverbal forms of communication that are important for bonding.
- Send physical letters and/or postcards. The physical act of buying stamps and writing a letter can produce a happy and nostalgic feeling. As much as you will feel happy to send a letter, the receiver will be equally happy. Nothing brings happiness like finding a letter for you in the mailbox. (Also, by buying stamps and send letters, we help support the U.S. Postal Service! A system that we often take for granted that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic).
- Be kind to yourself. Recognize the current time as an emotionally taxing time that can affect productivity levels. Current conditions make it difficult for us to thrive. Recognize that you aren’t the only one struggling during this time.
Our mental health is being put to the test. Luckily, lockdowns and shelter in place orders won’t last forever. However, even after the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness will continue to exist and be a national issue. Therefore it’s important that we pay attention to and nurture our relationships with family and friends. Our social relationships are key to mental health!