Many argue that we have had a long-standing loneliness epidemic in this country. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and mandated social distancing/quarantine many people are now forcibly isolated and feeling alone. You’ll see news articles indicating this much. But what is a more scientifically integrated take on loneliness and quarantine?
Recently, medical professionals and psychologists have been discussing the issue of loneliness in the United States (1). Researchers have discussed the implications of loneliness, showing some relationship between loneliness and increased risk of mental health disorders (2), medical conditions (3), and even increased mortality risk (4). The issues of loneliness appear to have far-reaching implications for people of all age groups. Interestingly, much of the research on loneliness has focused on older or elderly adults. Now, however, with the pandemic and months of lockdown, more and more people are at risk of forced loneliness and potentially mental health issues as a result.
Another issue is definitions. What is the substantive difference between social isolation (physically being separate) versus loneliness (a psychological state of mind). Are the two related? How? Well, practically speaking there are hundreds of variables that can affect the way we process being separate from other people: personality (introversion vs. extroversion), habits/hobbies, culture, context, extant mental health issues, to name a few.
Is being isolated inherently bad? No. The problem for us is the frequency and consistency of social isolation. We’re inherently social and built to be connected. So the question becomes, how much social isolation is a problem? Is it okay to feel/be socially isolated at work but not at home? All of these questions and more need to be answered, likely in a rather individualized way, in order to understand the issue of being physically separate. Mind you, this is just “isolation.”
Loneliness, on the other hand, is different. We typically think loneliness is synonymous with isolation, but that’s not quite true. Loneliness is a mind state, a felt sense of “separation”, typically based on a perceived sense of unimportance (5). We need to “feel” like we matter to one another. We all know exactly what it feels like to be in a room full of people and not know anyone and feel somewhat lonely and out of place. Many times in romantic relationships people feel lonely when their partner is avoiding sexual and emotional intimacy, even though the two live under the same roof. So, in many ways, the quality of the relationship, less so the physical proximity, matters for understanding loneliness. Dozens of psychological variables impact our perceived importance: shame, guilt, trauma, abuse, neglect, attachment insecurity, cultural mismatches in values in relationships, and many more.
Second, loneliness is the result of a lack of self-understanding, specifically understanding of our unique needs for connection. Our needs for connection are multifaceted. We’re all built differently, and as I said above, we all process being separate or connected differently. Lack of self-awareness is a common condition across mental health struggles. It’s also fair to say that most of us aren’t perfectly perceptive about what our psychological needs for connection are.
Once we understand our needs and we feel important, we tend to act on them and get our needs met.
Another issue is how we “check out.” Many people cope with drugs and alcohol to deal with stress and loneliness. Moreover, many people who are struggling with addiction are already isolated because family or friends have decided to separate from the person. Worse, many people with addiction disorders face broader psychosocial stigma, being judged as less than. This all likely makes the separation from people during the COVID-19 pandemic worse for patients or untreated persons with mental illness and addiction issues.
The good news is that we don’t have to feel lonely. No one has to be alone during this time. Most professionals are offering “telehealth” services to make sure people struggling with loneliness, mental illness, and addiction disorders get the support and quality treatment they deserve.
If you find yourself struggling to cope with loneliness or have any questions about treatment please feel free to reach out to us anytime at 747-222-7464 or at https://www.pcicenters.com/