Navigating Loneliness in a Socially-Distanced World
This has been a year unlike any other. No one could have guessed our society would face a pandemic that would claim so many lives, and so devastatingly disrupt our very basic and fundamental need for human connection. Medical and psychological science agree that isolation is supremely unhealthy in every domain. Increases in anxiety, depression, and decreases in necessary immune-functioning and general health have slammed into our world… and the despair from loneliness almost seems to be claiming as many lives as the pandemic itself.
BARRIERS TO CONNECTING
As a world we have flocked to technology… to Zoom, FaceTime and Google Meets to re-create connection. But as most would agree, technology has not adequately closed the gap; and in many cases, it has only served to widen the distance. It is becoming increasingly clear to many, that we are hard-wired for in-person connecting; and that true, fulfilling connection only happens when sharing a live, open-hearted and unmasked space with another human. …And here are some reasons why.
The Synchrony of Togetherness
According to brain science, when we are communicating with others in person, there are actually “mirror neurons” in our brains that subconsciously synchronize our vocal tone, facial expressions, body language, and even our moods and emotions with the other person. It is ever so subtle, but we legitimately “mirror” one another. For example in counseling, when I lean forward, my client tends to lean forward. When they sit relaxed and open, I often do the very same thing. When a body position change takes place in the person across from us, a sort of discomfort is triggered in the brain that causes our own body to adjust to the asynchrony; and we shift. This happens on an emotional level as well. When a friend shares something painful or sorrowful, our eyebrows furrow and we sometimes even feel the weight of their emotional pain. And when they run up to us in excited glee, our spirits magically lift in similar euphoria, anticipating the positive news. The problem with technology is that while some measure of emotional synchrony may still take place in a one-on-one Zoom call, the lack of closeness and felt presence forfeits the brain’s ability to capture and mirror the other person’s slight changes and cues. This lack of synchrony creates barriers to connection and sometimes even leaves an unexplainable, uncomfortable awkwardness.
The “Screen” Mask
With the increase in technology use, I have also noticed a dynamic personality shift take place in my clients, my students, and even some friends when communicating through a screen… It has been so poignant, that I’ve begun to believe that the “screen” is the digital version of the in-person pandemic mask we publicly wear. When “on-screen” with my clients and friends, it often seems as if there is a stronger fear of vulnerability, a perception of being even more highly scrutinized, and thus a greater hesitation to fully engage. In my students switching back and forth between in-person and virtual as exposure breeds quarantine, I have noticed an unspoken need to “hide” as I frequently only see the tops of heads and occasionally some eyes; and some of my most active class participators suddenly become silent and difficult to engage. In my own personal analysis of this shift, I wonder if our inundated exposure to the general “screen-time” of tv, movies, video games, and social media has created a similar screen-numbness in the Zoom and Google Meet realms. I wonder if the face on the screen loses its realness; I wonder if it all becomes just another extension of a fake world…
In his famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” psychologist Abraham Maslow identified “the need to belong” and be a part of a connected group as a significant and vital key to general mental health. Isolation can rapidly deteriorate mental health. During distance and virtual learning, I have heard several teachers and parents communicate the presence of pervasive despair in children (manifested as increased anxiety, negative mood, and behavioral difficulties in the home). As a mother, I have also witnessed this very dynamic in my own child with a noteworthy positive shift in mood, emotional function, as well as increased attention-span and improved academic motivation upon return to ‘brick and mortar.’ Likewise, my high school students jubilantly return to in-person learning, rawly and vulnerably sharing the emotional and mental pain of quarantined isolation. It is a “night and day” difference.
Another thing we are missing with the lack of in-person connecting is human touch. Psychologists have coined the term “skin hunger” to describe touch deprivation. Our skin is full of “receptor cells,” waiting to experience the pressure of a hug, or even a slight touch. When triggered, the neural impulse sent to our brain is processed as affection, and a heart warmth is sent right back down through our extremities. And not only that, touch can be significantly healing. It has been shown to lower blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, boosting the immune system. Human touch is something that everyone needs and everyone misses when not received. According to attachment theory, babies who are not regularly held and cuddled struggle to reach cognitive, psychological and social development milestones. We all need hugs. We all need physical affection. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine remain a barrier to this very real and very deep psychological, emotional and physical need.
A Loneliness Epidemic
It does need to be said that loneliness is not a new thing. In 2018, global health service company CIGNA conducted a study on chronic loneliness in the United States and found that just under 50% of Americans report feeling sometimes or always lonely; and 1 in 4 adults “rarely or never” feel understood by others. There are many theories as to why so many people battle loneliness. Some studies suggest existing correlations between “high” social media use and chronic loneliness. But even those who do not possess a social media account can sometimes fall into the category of isolation for medical and other reasons; sometimes, there is no accessible or available social outlet. Other times, the demands of career, home, and/or parenting shuts the availability door on authentic relationships.
The pandemic has not only served to highlight the loneliness epidemic; it has also given humanity a very clear awakening to the essential and basic need for companionship, for authenticity, for belonging and connection, for touch, and ultimately for love. So what do we do?
KEYS TO CONNECTING
The typical pop psychology quick-fix remedy for loneliness has often been to “increase socialization”; call a friend, make plans! But I have had clients and others share that this sometimes makes them feel even worse. The reason for this is that they attend social outings, but never feel “seen.” So I believe the antidote to loneliness is not increased socialization; rather, it is deeper human connection. Psychologist Carl Rogers identified 3 specific relational needs that everyone has for healthy emotional and mental growth: the presence of 1)Genuineness, 2)Acceptance, and 3)Empathy. For those who suffer with chronic loneliness, it might be helpful to ask yourself if these three elements exist in any of your current relationships.
GENUINENESS. It is important to cultivate relationships that are real and authentic! While we all don our pandemic masks, we often simultaneously don the masks of superficiality. To share our deepest fears, vulnerabilities and insecurities, we certainly run the risk of rejection and that’s scary! But as I’ve said in many other blog posts… you cannot be fully loved until you are fully known. So while it is absolutely risky, I say it is a risk worth taking! Because what you may often find is that the person you fear opening up to- also equally fears opening up to you. And then we all stand side by side secretly starving for deeper connection, not knowing that the person next to us is craving the very same thing.
Key: Allow yourself to be known.
ACCEPTANCE. Loneliness is then quenched when authentic sharing is followed by acceptance. Acceptance is what we all crave. Rejection is what we fear. And the path to acceptance begins with your own acceptance of others. When you accept others for who they are and where they are in life, you naturally open the door for the reciprocity of that acceptance. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” (Matthew 7:12).
Key: Know and accept others; then watch them desire to know and accept you.
EMPATHY. And then empathy is entering into the world of another, emotionally, mentally, socially. Sympathy is different because it stands on the outside and offers a polite “I’m sorry you had a rough day. Better luck next time!” Empathy is visualizing and feeling the roughness of that person’s day and joining them in that emotional moment. Empathy is presence. Empathy is “doing” life with someone else, not just witnessing it.
Key: “Do” life with others.
So these three together: genuineness, acceptance and empathy are keys to deep connecting… to knowing and being known…loving and being loved… which, I believe, is the antidote to loneliness. Now in reference to the mentioned barriers to connecting, please understand that I am in no way encouraging social rebellion against the health recommendations. The current pandemic is a very real and active threat. However I encourage you to understand and acknowledge the legitimacy of your very real needs, to validate the grief of their loss; and then to recognize the basic keys for connecting, identifying new and creative ways to achieve healthy, life-giving relationships. Screen communication is still better than nothing and sometimes, a one on one communication where both parties are intentional in their vulnerability and authenticity can be significantly fruitful. And when viable and acceptable (with health recommendations still in mind), you might decide to empathetically engage in-person where mirror neurons are in play, isolation thwarted and skin hunger satisfied. The basic truth is… we are all in this together and WE NEED EACH OTHER!!!!!