Do you remember when the talk was about something other than ‘the virus’? Well as recently as a few months ago there was a mounting concern about the ‘loneliness epidemic’ and not just in the elderly population. Ask anyone in their senior years and they will tell you that the world has never been more crowded and busier. However, are we getting too busy to connect directly to people while we have all our attention on a mobile phone or other device? Never have we felt so lonely in a crowd. Social isolation was (eventually) deemed a big issue when the 2017 UK Government’s report suggested that nine million of the country’s 67 million people feel lonely some or all of the time. To give credit this is normally the sort of finding that gets swept under the carpet, but not in this case. Diana Barran, was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Civil Society and Loneliness. As she has said “It touches almost every one of us at some point,”… “It can lead to very serious health consequences for the individual and leads to erosion of our society, where people become isolated and disconnected.” Reports suggest that not much happened since. However loneliness was and is now, more so than EVER on the agenda. Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic it was shown that social isolation is lethal. More so than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or than obesity. It is thought that loneliness increases inflammation, heart disease, dementia and overall mortality.
Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection By John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick argues that the root cause of loneliness is evolution. Modern society is worlds away from the community-based life for which we were designed. Humans are such deeply social animals that it makes no more sense to consider a person in isolation than it does an ant or a bee. Even as adults, we are so dependent on our groups that for millennia, separation from them was a de facto death sentence. We thus evolved so as to experience social pain in a similar way to physical pain. Brain scans show that being shunned activates the dorsal anterior cingulate the same region as bodily trauma.
Cacioppo’s Catch 22 of loneliness: to escape it, we need other people, but the emotion itself impairs our ability to attract them.
“The term lonely often implies that you’re somehow a social failure, but that’s not the case,”
Everyone feels lonely sometimes.
1 in 4: Number of Americans who rarely or never feel as though there are people who understand them.
Half: Proportion of Americans who have meaningful, in-person social interactions, such as long conversations with friends or quality time with family, every day.
1 in 5: Number of Americans who rarely feel close to people.
Now we have the COVID-19 Self-Isolation and thus loneliness is going to be a big deal. A loneliness epidemic? Maybe more like a loneliness pandemic! Will many of those surviving the Corona Virus Pandemic have increased mortality due to the cure increasing morbidity, both psychological and physical ? (I’m NOT getting TRUMPian with this and I suspect we’ll still be in lock-down way after Easter!)
So, what do we do? Being aware of the problem is of course the first step to successfully addressing any issue. If not you, then others – There is a wonderful groundswell of neighbourliness with social media helping in a hugely positive way getting communities to work together. In the UK the NHS has launched a national campaign but there are many others locally too. Nextdoor is a local app and excellent for connecting with immediate neighbours. There are many others with even single streets working together to organise shopping etc. So get involved – chat to a neighbour – from 2M away!
Patch Adams once said to a bunch of us, “reach out and you’ll never be lonely.”
So now’s your chance to make someone else happier and less lonely and feel better yourself too!
Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year in space onboard the space station has also recently shared his tips on isolation via the New York Times.
According to Kelly, these are best tips to practice while being stuck in quarantine:
- Listen to experts:Heed the advice of the World Health Organization and your local Medical Advisors – Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance in the UK. Governments may not get it right and seem to be making it up as they go along, however the science and data changes day to day and hopefully so do they.
When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?
- Follow a schedule but pace yourself:“You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to ad different work and home life environment,” Kelly said in the article. 20 tips for a happy retirement. #5 – Develop a Routine “Take time for fun activities.” Play board games, watch TV – but be selective – Look out for some of the readily available box sets etc. Read, or even reread some classics, or just those books you really enjoyed back in the day! Not just distraction but education and stimulation of the mind! Experts have advised that a sense of structure is an essential tool for helping stave off loneliness during isolation. Waking and going to sleep at the same time can be helpful for feeling like you have structure. The World Health Organisation has advised that a good way to keep on top of anxiety and stress is to check the news only twice a day, at set times. Plan regular phone calls with friends, family or neighbours and create a sense of purpose with hobbies – maybe learn to cook a new ‘signature dish’ or some cakes and cookies for the neighbours? – housekeeping and that to-do list you thought you’d put aside for a rainy day – well its POURING out there!
- Go outside:Kelly recommends going for a daily walk to take a breath of fresh air during your quarantine schedule, but remember social distancing – stay at least six feet / 2M away from others people. There will be differing rules on this – in the UK we are currently allowed one form of outdoor exercise daily – a walk, cycle or run – However this may well change and there may be a point when we have to stay inside and NOT stray outside at all.
- You need a hobby: Play an instrument, if you haven’t started yet there are plenty of online courses and Amazon will likely deliver a Guitar or Ukulele etc. the next day!
- Keep a journal:Log each day of isolation. Kelly says it will help you put your experiences in perspective and when this is all over, be able to look back at this time in history and what it meant for you. Believe it or not this is a unique time in our history (thankfully) and your descendants will (hopefully) never have anything like this to compare their lives to, what is dull and boring to you today may well be totally fascinating in 100 years! This can be a written record, voice recording or even a video diary!
- Take time to connect:Keep in touch with family and friends. Make sure they’re doing OK during these troubling times. Staying in touch with loved ones can not only help your mental health, but also physical health. (See above) Ring family and friends to see how they are – now is an important time to look out for each other. Create WhatsApp groups with friends or neighbours if you want to exchange information, funnies or just rant. Don’t forget about old friends, now is a great time to catch up with friends you haven’t spoken to in years. One of the most difficult things will be not being sure when you will next see your nearest and dearest, so maybe organise a set time for Skype etc. Setting up weekly routines such as ‘virtual’ dining together or even ‘Skype Cocktails’ in a virtual bar, might make a world of difference!
- We are all connected:“As helpless as we may feel stuck inside our homes, there are always things we can do,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen humans work together to prevail over some of the toughest challenges imaginable, and I know we can prevail over this one if we all do our part and work together as a team.”
Don’t forget exercise (see blog) is an essential part of maintaining our mental as well as physical health. Try the NHS online exercise studio and other at home exercise guides.
I suspect it’s difficult to feel so lonely if you are happy, these evidence based tips were filmed for a BBC series “Making Slough Happy“.
The basis of the programme was to test 10 simple measures (the Happiness Manifesto) on a group of volunteers:
- Plant something and nurture it
- Count your blessings – at least 5 – at the end of the day
- Take time to talk – have an hour-long conversation with a loved one each week
- Phone a friend whom you have not spoken to for a while and arrange to meet up
- Give yourself a treat every day and take the time to really enjoy it
- Have a good laugh at least once a day
- Get physical – exercise for half an hour three times a week
- Smile at and/or say hello to a stranger at least once a day (FROM A DISTANCE!)
- Cut your TV viewing in half
- Spread some kindness – do a good turn for someone every day