For many it causes pain and it has some serious side effects too. Loneliness, it’s the other Covid jab.  I hear the loud debates around Covid vaccinations but the silence of loneliness during this pandemic is deafening.

The Beatles song pulls at my heart as I wonder where the voices of ‘all the lonely people’ are.  Millions of Australians are currently living in lockdown. The disruption of social routines and the lack of opportunity to make new connection is causing social starvation, and is putting people at risk of loneliness. I have been interested in loneliness for almost a decade and it is in my sixth lockdown that I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of the silence.

Loneliness is an aversive and subjective feeling of social isolation that arises when an individual perceives that the quality or quantity of social relationships is less than what they desire.[1] If a person feels lonely, then they are lonely. Loneliness is not equivalent to social isolation, an objective measure of the number of friends, family, or other social connections that an individual has and the frequency of contact with these social connections.[2]

Research shows that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, making it even more dangerous than obesity[3] Other effects on health include a 29% increase in the incidence of coronary heart disease, a 32% increase in the risk of stroke, poorer cardiovascular health indicators (such as elevated blood pressure and elevated cholesterol) and predicts future poorer mental health severity including depression. Loneliness has also been shown to put people at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia.[4]

The problem of loneliness is not new and has been recognised as a signature concern of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are yet to learn the long term impacts of lockdowns on future social habits too. German analyst and psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann wrote, “Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it.”[5] But what happens in this new in-and-out of lockdown world where it is near impossible to avoid?

There is a perception that loneliness is only a concern for the elderly, but age does not appear to be a demographic that drives loneliness. Dr Michelle Lim (Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together, Senior Lecturer Swinburne University of Technology) explains that “while it’s normal to feel lonely from time to time, some people are at higher risk of problematic levels of loneliness. We found being aged 18-25, being unemployed, and living alone were among the factors that predicted higher levels of loneliness.”[6]

As lockdown becomes the new way of life, conditions for loneliness are fertile. I have not heard the loud voices of the single parents, those living alone, or those in disconnected relationships. I have not seen vocal Facebook posts from new mums, exhausted and isolated without the friendship and support of their face to face mother’s groups. There is a nation of remote workers with conditions that “further limit our ability to form or keep those small, informal but important moments to connect with colleagues.”[7]. It is noticeable that the elderly have become so quiet – it almost feels like they have vanished.  And I have not heard the voices of every other human who feels lonely this lockdown. This is frightful because it is fundamentally human to feel lonely yet loneliness does not have a voice.

Why aren’t we hearing these voices? It is kind of like loneliness was branded with the wrong label of shame and stigma, rather than the classification of ‘just another emotion.’ The shame and stigma “prevents us not just from admitting (it) to other people but even from admitting it to ourselves “says Dr Vivek Murthy (19th and 20th Surgeon General of the United State). We don’t recognise loneliness because there is a “deep stigma around loneliness, a shame that comes with loneliness that makes us think that If we are lonely we are not likeable, that we are broken in some way “ he explains.

Professor John Cacioppo, former director of University of Chicago Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, studied loneliness for 21 years and talked about loneliness as biological warning machinery. Just like hunger is an unpleasant situation that motivates someone to seek out food, and thirst motivates someone to seek out water, he described loneliness as a pain that alerts us to take care of our social body which one needs to survive and prosper. And much like hunger or thirst, loneliness, if left unresolved, can have serious health consequences.

I have often questioned why this human protective response would be masked in shame.  Brene Brown, an American researcher and storyteller, known for her work on empathy and shame says that “the biggest barrier we have to building a world where we’re socially connected, is the weird, not natural, but passed down and taught shame for needing each other. We grow up believing that if we need each other we’re less than. “This deeply ingrained cultural message that we need to do it alone is dangerous because it’s not true to who we are, and it’s not reflective of our real nature.

 “We have exalted independence to an almost god-like state. There is no higher value than independence” says writer Douglas Tindal.

But the pursuit of absolute independence has left people fragmented and atomised. Confronted with lockdown reality, it is helpful to acknowledge the human requirement for others as fundamental to survival.  Jeffrey Hall, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, makes an analogy between the gut biome and the social biome. Hall says the social biome “is the individual ecosystem of relationships and interactions that shapes our emotional, psychological and physical health.” [8] “All your daily interactions with others, big and small, make up your social biome, and the pandemic has severely damaged most of ours.”[9]

This is my global call to raise the voice of loneliness. I want to acknowledge the value of loneliness as an alert, an  invitation to share our vulnerable feelings and  in doing so , taking action toward the quality and quantity of relationships and connections that we desire and need as human beings.

Dr Lim shares “living in a lockdown is stressful, but it’s a shared experience. It presents us with opportunities to show kindness to people we may not know well… Where appropriate, more often than not, sharing our lockdown experiences can create an opportunity to bond with and support each other.”[10]

The stigma of loneliness is more dangerous than speaking out about it.  Fromm – Reichmann says that one tragedy of loneliness is that lonely people can’t see that lots of people feel the same way they do.[11] By talking about our own experiences of loneliness we can help people see they are not alone in the feeling and that “the longing for interpersonal intimacy stays with every human being from infancy through life and there is no human being who is not threatened by its loss.”  (Fromm-Reichmann)

The collective sharing of loneliness might somehow create a global catharsis, and the convergence of these shared experiences could be just what we need to help ease this painful Covid jab.  

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