As I sit here confined to a hotel room in Hong Kong, undergoing the twenty-one-day compulsory quarantine order that has been issued to me on my return from travels to reunite with my family after two years, I find myself experiencing loneliness first hand. The highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to fuel the COVID-19 pandemic, and many governments continue to enforce preventive measures including enforced lockdowns, social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine. However, these measures have profoundly affected social connections resulting in a host of psychological stressors including fear of infection, anxiety, feeling helpless, frustration, boredom, inadequate information, financial loss and stigma. All of these stressors can further increase social isolation therefore making loneliness a central potential outcome of such social-distancing policies (Shah, Nogueras, van Woerden, & Kiparoglou, 2020).
But what is loneliness and why am I experiencing these negative feelings?
As humans, we are inherently social beings who possess a fundamental need to belong which is a core driver of our thoughts, emotions and interpersonal behaviour. So, when we fail to satisfy this need, we are likely to experience a sense of deprivation which can result in disturbances such as loneliness, depression, anxiety and anger (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). More specifically, loneliness has been defined “as a discrepancy between desired and perceived social relationships” (Shah et al., 2020) and is linked with a myriad of harmful physical and mental consequences (Jeste, Lee, & Cacioppo, 2020; Palgi et al., 2020). In my case, there is a clear mismatch between the desired and actual quantity and quality of the social relationships I currently have, causing negative feelings. If left unchecked over the long term, this mismatch can have potentially severe consequences for my mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Given its subjective nature, it is useful to understand the different perspectives on the origin and maintenance of loneliness and the individual differences in the ways that one may experience it. The social needs perspective suggests that there is an absence of a needed relationship that enables the meeting of our inherent social needs (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). These can be in the form of key attachment figures such as parents/partners or spouses – people in our lives who provide nurturance, reassurance or worth. People whom we rely on, seek guidance from and ally ourselves with. Similarly, friends, family, colleagues and communities also allow for social integration through alliances. It is worth noting that situational factors such as death, divorce, relocation and the restrictions imposed on us as a result of this pandemic can also affect our ability to meet our social needs. In contrast, the cognitive discrepancy perspective focuses primarily on the role of early influences in the development and maintenance of loneliness – basically, irrational or distorted thinking leads to loneliness by impacting how one interacts and interprets interpersonal situations causing deficits in sociability because they attribute loneliness to themselves (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). For example, we may blame ourselves and have thoughts along the lines of “I do not have friends because I am dull and boring” – there is a fear of rejection because we feel we don’t measure up. Similarly, one may have unrealistic standards for eligible companions – no one is good enough and simply does not measure up! The interactionist approach is probably more universally representative of what contributes to loneliness as it is the interplay between one’s personal characteristics and their sociocultural context (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006).
So, who is more likely to be affected by “lockdown loneliness”?
Unfortunately, the list is long. Adults who are single, divorced, separated, widowed, living alone as well as individuals who suffer from ill health or have physical disabilities and other limitations (such as hearing loss) are more vulnerable; their already difficult pre-existing social situation is being restricted even further (Shah et al., 2020). Families with young children and the elderly are also at risk as family support systems are interrupted or no longer in place. There are also those that feel disconnected from colleagues because of being confined to working from home on their own. In my case, I am missing the physical presence of my sons, my husband and my dog as well as interacting face to face with friends, colleagues and clients. However, loneliness is more prevalent in adolescents and young people due to the fact that their social expectations, roles, relationships and personal identities undergo significant changes during this life stage (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). As children move into adolescence they develop greater expectations about their social relationships, wanting loyalty, support and intimacy. This is also a time when they want to exchange beliefs, values and ideologies with friends rather than simply wanting to share activities. They almost develop a preoccupation with their social status. Thus, loneliness can arise if adolescents have not acquired the necessary social skills to cope with their changing social environment – add a pandemic to the mix and they are far more vulnerable. The establishment of intimate relationships also becomes very important at this time of life so social distancing and restrictions make them more vulnerable to loneliness. There are huge implications here as this is the time that they spend less time with families and more with peers in order to gain independence and establish individuality. We really need to consider the aftermath of the pandemic and what the current restrictions may imply for this age group going forward.
How can we tackle loneliness in the midst of a pandemic?
Efforts must be aimed at mitigating social isolation and facilitating social correctness by changing and adapting the ways in which we connect with each other and maintain social networks. Ironically, digital technology and social media for all their pitfalls have become vital throughout this pandemic to stay connected with family, friends, colleagues and community members (Shah et al., 2020). Indeed, I have found it to be a saviour and my lifeline to the outside world as I go through my 21-day confinement and isolation. It is important to actively ensure that no one is digitally excluded particularly vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. My youngest son and his father are also in quarantine in a separate room and technology has helped him to virtually attend school and I have facilitated opportunities for online meetups with his friends. Every evening we have dinner ‘together’ as a family over a video call which has been a great opportunity for us to catch up and check in with each other as usual. However, it is essential to be aware of the limitations of digital tools and ensure they are safe, effective and evidence-based particularly with regard to the negative impacts of the use of social media (Shah et al., 2020). Limit the use of social media and focus your use of digital technology on making meaningful, necessary and useful connections with friends, family and colleagues on the outside. I have researched and investigated useful apps both for staying connected and also for self-care including exercise to help with creating a positive mood and simple meditations to keep me grounded.
Don’t forget to incorporate non-digital ways of connecting, particularly when physical distancing recommendations are in place without orders to stay at home. The outdoor environment is an important venue for socialising which supports neighbourliness and can help prevent increases in feelings of loneliness. If there are people in your life you want to get to know better, going for a walk with someone can be a great no-pressure way to connect. In addition, community use of local open spaces, facilities and parks, creates opportunities for small talk. Try just asking the check-out person at the supermarket how their day’s going, and see how you feel. Sometimes when you’re in a loneliness spiral, you might start turning down opportunities to socialise without even realising it, so be sure to give ‘yes’ a go whenever the opportunity arises. Writing is also a great way to battle loneliness, as it helps you to process your emotions and get a clearer idea of where you stand and a chance to reflect, just as I am while writing this article. Studies show that animals and pets are great at making us feel connected and cared for and can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and ease loneliness. If social distancing rules allow, volunteering helps to get you out and connects you with the community around you; at the same time studies show that helping others improves mental health.
On the positive side…….
Don’t forget there’s value in spending time on your own as well. Sit with the feelings of loneliness. You might find you enjoy your own company more than you think. Denying your feelings and telling yourself to get over it can make you feel even worse. When you work on accepting your feelings, you can start to feel a bit better. In fact, some studies show that for others, the pandemic created a sense of peace. It gave them time to reflect on things that are truly important to them and focus more on these things and to embark on a journey of self-awareness. Some people have reported, they felt being part of society again, as everyone had to stay home and limit their social contacts. The overload of the external stimuli of daily life had fallen away which created a sense of peace and space to think which seemed to ease their worries. This time and space can be a great opportunity to provide input for helping you and your family members to cultivate resilience, for example, you can use this time to explore what values are important to you and how you can live by these values.
“The season of loneliness and isolation is when the caterpillar gets its wings. Remember that the next time you feel alone” Mandy Hale
Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(6), 695-718. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2006.04.002
Jeste, D. V., Lee, E. E., & Cacioppo, S. (2020). Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(6), 553-554. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0027
Palgi, Y., Shrira, A., Ring, L., Bodner, E., Avidor, S., Bergman, Y., . . . Hoffman, Y. (2020). The loneliness pandemic: Loneliness and other concomitants of depression, anxiety and their comorbidity during the COVID-19 outbreak. Journal of Affective Disorders, 275, 109-111. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.06.036
Shah, S. G. S., Nogueras, D., van Woerden, H. C., & Kiparoglou, V. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pandemic of Lockdown Loneliness and the Role of Digital Technology. Journal of medical Internet research, 22(11), e22287-e22287. doi:10.2196/22287
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By Lara Melwani
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