With social distancing restrictions in place to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, many of us may be missing the regular face-to-face, close contact with others. The 15th June marked the start of Loneliness Awareness week hosted by the Marmalade Trust (marmaladetrust.org) and it comes just as the government have advised that single adults can form support bubbles with other households, in an attempt to combat loneliness during lockdown. This opportunity to connect will undoubtedly be a relief for some people on their own; however, it is not just those living by themselves that may be at risk of feeling lonely right now.
I have continued to deliver virtual counselling sessions to young people throughout lockdown and am hearing that loneliness is rife for those living in bustling households too. Loneliness is not just about proximity or physical isolation; we may be surrounded by people but feel alone. Loneliness can be experienced when we do not feel connected, valued, included and validated by others. The answer to loneliness is therefore not simply about increasing numbers, it is about increasing opportunities for meaningful connection with those who you can relate to and be authentic with. Here I will consider why feeling lonely can feel so unbearable and what steps individuals can take towards feeling more meaningfully connected.
Why do other people matter?
If we consider back to our primitive ancestors, we can observe how humans were and still very much are essentially social, pack mammals; predetermined to seek out others for individual and species survival. We are not equipped with sharp teeth and claws, strength and speed and so our survival has for centuries required us to live and work together in communities, creating strength, ingenuity and protection in numbers. From others, we can elicit emotional support, comfort and closeness and having people we can turn to in times of distress to share, sooth and solve our concerns, has for years helped to form a more resilient and cohesive contingent, which further buttresses our survival as a species.
Historically a human on their own would struggle to survive and this need for others still drives our behaviours and emotional landscape today. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal remarks in her TED talk on how our physiology supports this, explaining that “your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience – and that mechanism is human connection.” She found that when we are stressed our bodies deliberately increases the production of the hormone oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” which drives us to seek contact and closeness with other people. Our relationships are therefore of incredible survival importance to us and feelings of rejection, exclusion and physical and emotional isolation can leave us feeling vulnerable, lost and destitute.
How can we ease feelings of isolation?
Our emotions help guide us towards health and so if we acknowledge when we are feeling lonely, we can begin to take steps to satisfy our needs and return to a state of homeostasis. Feeling lonely can feel unbearable and it is precisely this level of discomfort which is designed to mobilise us into action to address our needs and restore balance and well-being. If we are feeling lonely then it can be helpful to explore ways to increase genuine, meaningful connection with others and below we have set out 5 points to consider.
- Meaningful Connection: Close proximity alone is not always enough to ease loneliness. If we do not feel meaningfully connected and a sense of belonging with those who surround us, our communities may feel alienating instead of nourishing. But to feel this connection, it has to be at an authentic level and this requires us to be genuine in our interactions, so that we feel truly seen and understood for who we really are, as opposed to who we feel we need to be.
This may feel counterintuitive because if we feel lonely and crave connection, we may be drawn to only present ‘acceptable’ sides of ourselves. The trouble is that this deliberate and edited presentation of ourselves may be mismatched with or fall short of who we really are. Relationships built on these foundations may feel tepid and at our core we may still be plagued with feelings of loneliness. We need to find the courage to take our place in the world; to be ourselves and to share the full spectrum of our individual humanity for meaningful, authentic and nourishing human connection.
- Relationship with self: The late young people’s counsellor Nick Luxemore once wrote “the quality of our relationships are defined by our capacity to be alone,” suggesting that we need to be comfortable and honest with who we are, before we can be authentic with other people. To be accepting of who we are we need to show ourselves recognition, compassion and understanding. Begin by accessing your inner sensations and taking time to recognise how it feels to occupy your own your body through physical activity or breathing. Take time to acknowledge your feelings without denying, blaming or shaming yourself, to nurture a stronger, more cohesive alliance with yourself. It can be all too easy to berate and shame ourselves for mistakes we make or the emotions we feel. If we can’t accept ourselves as we are, then we will struggle to share who we really are with others and without that authenticity, our relationships with are stifled.
- Community, Rhythm and Unison: If we look to the sky we may be lucky enough to catch sight of the synchronised murmuration of starlings in flight; a scene where each bird takes its place and moves in unison with the flock. If we too join together in unison with our communities, we can feel a greater sense of cohesion and cooperation and the result can be just as beautiful. We might recall the footage of neighbours joining together in song during early lockdown and the feeling of solidarity and unity these scenes generated through voices in unison. “Collective movement and music create a larger context for our lives, a meaning beyond our individual fate” (Bessel van Der Kolk). Joining together in time with others, either in voice or movement, can help create a sense of commonality, safety, sharing, purpose and inclusion. Consider ways in which you can join together in time with others, whether that be singing, chanting, drumming, army drill, rowing, martial arts, and exercise, relaxation or dance classes. Activities whereby all individuals perform in rhythmic unison to create a sense of ‘we,’ whether online or in person can feel socially restorative.
- Touch: Human touch alone supports communication and formation of social bonds and has been shown to reduce stress levels. In fact, babies who are deprived of touch can stop growing and suffer poor physical and emotional health. Parents of new-born babies are strongly encouraged to elicit skin-to-skin contact to help regulate heart rate, temperature, stress levels and even blood sugar levels. We do not lose our need for touch as we get older. Through touch we feel our presence and existence in the world and the acceptance of and care from others. Consider with whom you can safely and comfortably elicit touch; a hug, hand holding or an arm around someone all help to solidify social bonds and sharing. We all have different comfort thresholds with touch and these vary depending who we are with and the nature of the contact. Some of our pets can also provide an alternative source of physical contact, through stroking, cuddling and nestling together which can help ease feelings of loneliness and help regulate our emotions.
- Pets and Plants: Psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith wrote that loneliness “is at root, a crisis of belonging” for which reconnection to nature as well as communities can be helpful. Our relationships with the flora and fauna around us can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness through meaningful connection with and a sense of belonging in the world. Our bonds with our animals have long been recognised as beneficial to our wellbeing, especially when we feel in tune with them and them with us. Touch and physical contact with our pets can also help ease feelings of isolation as well as helping to regulate our emotions.
Written by: Janina Malyon
Emotional Wellbeing Counsellor