The creative and pioneering cardiologist, Dean Ornish, declared almost a generation ago that “Our survival depends on the healing power of love, intimacy, and relationships. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. As individuals. As communities. As a culture. Perhaps even as a species” (Ornish, 1998, p. 1). Earlier researchers also focused on the role of social support in relation to both physical and mental health. Others have explored the effects of loneliness on health and concluded that our physical and mental health can be significantly affected by social disconnection and alienation. Social support networks have been shown to be important in enhancing the recovery process following physical trauma, such as illness or surgery. Social networks consist of one’s family, friends and others, support that gives one the understanding that he is cared for, valued and belongs to a network which can nurture and sustain him or her.
Recent research clearly shows the harmful effects of loneliness, or lack of those social connections, on our body, emotional wellbeing, and our spiritual side. Humans have a pervasive and an inborn drive to form and keep lasting significant and positive relationships. Failure to have those belonging needs met would quite certainly lead to feelings of social isolation and loneliness. One of the points that is frequently highlighted in the literature about belonging is that the quality of those relationships which we have rather than their quantity, is the defining feature and the significant variable in creating a positive relational context and which will satisfy the need to belong [for a more detailed and focused discussion on belonging, please consult chapter 1 in my 2019 loneliness book].
It is quite amazing. Up to about eight months ago, no one mentioned loneliness. Loneliness is known to have a significant stigma to it, and while untold number of people are lonely, temporarily or continuously, people did not dare to discuss it out loud. Gordon (1976) explained the reason behind it: ‘If I am lonely, that means that no one wants to be close to me. That means, simply, that I am not good enough. And in our couple culture, which adores successful people, I feel like a failure and am probably seen like that by others. I will, therefore, shut up so others do not see what a loser I am.” Hence, loneliness has become significantly stigmatized and people simply do not talk about it. Former UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s appointment of a minister for loneliness affairs, made the public understand that it may be acceptable to openly talk about it. However, it took the COVID pandemic to let the horse out of the stable. Loneliness became a ‘hot’ topic, a common complaint, and something that people openly discuss and wish to change. It is suggested the reason for the change is that, now, many openly talk about being lonely since it may not point to their own shortcomings; rather, COVID may be blamed since it forced individuals to be locked up at home, and severely yearn for company.
Let’s clarify some loneliness-related concepts. Loneliness is not a feeling but rather an experience that has emotional and cognitive dimensions. Loneliness is painful and distressing and consequently we do not choose or enjoy being lonely. Loneliness is a subjective experience. Although we all talk about ‘loneliness’, it is actually experienced differently by different people. Hearing the word loneliness, we typically conjure up the image of being alone. And while being alone can, indeed, promote loneliness, being in a crowd—ie, on a bus or in a theatre or even surrounded by a loving family—we can also experience loneliness, which is even more painful. However, the most painful loneliness is the one we may experience in an intimate relationship which has lost its zest, excitement, and intimacy.
Loneliness is differentiated between reactive and essential. Reactive loneliness is that occasional loneliness that may be experienced when one undergoes a loss of a significant person, various other kind of losses, or experiences a major disruption in one’s life, such as moving to another city or country or separation from a loved one, to mention just a few. Essential loneliness is intertwined into one’s personality, most probably as a result of infancy or childhood experiences with caretakers. Those people who are lonely at their core cannot simply stop being lonely, unless they undergo deep and lengthy psychotherapy. In my clinical practice I have treated couples who experienced relational disharmony, where the husband, say, was showering love, caring and attention and the woman in that case still complained of experiencing loneliness and of being unloved by the world, regardless of the attention and love that were poured on her.
The research on loneliness that I have conducted over the past 40 years identified five dimensions that construct the experience we term loneliness. Not all five of them must occur, but commonly if two or three occur, we term the experience ‘loneliness’. The first and the most salient dimension is Emotional distress, which we feel when lonely. The gnawing pain, hurt and anxiety, feeling as if our hearts are breaking. Next is Social inadequacy and alienation, which is experienced as the concern that we are not good enough for others to want out company, feeling inadequate, ignored and not valued. The third dimension is Interpersonal isolation, marked by knowing that I am not loved by anyone, have no meaningful close or romantic relationship, and basically do not matter to anyone. Self-alienation is the fourth dimension and focuses on experiencing as if my body is separate from my mind, a kind of a defence mechanism to prevent me from feeling the searing pain of loneliness. The last dimension is Growth and discovery, which addresses the growth promoting effects that this experience may have, the ability to realize that we have, possibly, more resources to cope with a difficult situation than we thought we had, a new appreciation of others and of interpersonal relationships, and an clearer understanding of my self and my world [see chaper 3 in my 2019 loneliness book, for a full discussion of loneliness].
COVID–19 and Addressing Loneliness
Complaints about loneliness due to physical (rather than social) isolation are rampant. People wonder what can they do, and how can they handle the forced social isolation, which was imposed to deal with the threat of infection due to COVID-19. Clients who are seen for psychotherapy inquire about the best way to deal with the loneliness which they experience. The first step is for them to become aware of the difference between loneliness and solitude, and that being alone does not have to be construed as loneliness, for it could, as easily, be solitude. Earlier, a distinction between reactive and essential loneliness was made. Many, who had been quite lonely prior to the COVID era, continued to experience loneliness during the forced physical isolation. These people will, unfortunately, continue to experience loneliness when the measures taken to fight COVID will be relaxed. They will continue to experience loneliness since that is part of their personality. Unless they engage in a lengthy individual psychotherapy, they may not be able, by themselves, to shake it.
The point of view that is hereby advocated suggests that we, unlike what many may feel, have control over how we survive and live through this unique period and what our days will look like. That brings to mind the concept of learned helplessness, advanced by the American psychologist Martin Seligman. There is a story that poignantly illustrates what it means. In India there was a farmer who got a small young elephant as a present. He loved the animal and played with it, but when he tended his fields, he tied the elephant to a large wooden pole that was planted in the soil. The elephant did not like being tied for the whole day and attempted with all its might to free itself. After several days and realizing that the pole was planted firmly in the ground and could not be moved, the elephant gave up and just stood there the entire day, waiting for the farmer to free it. As the years passed, the elephant grew and reached the size and strength that it could easily unearth the wooden pole to which it was tied. However, the elephant had learned (in infancy) that once tied to the pole it cannot free itself. Even when it grew and strengthened, it never even tried to unearth the pole. This is an excellent example of learned helplessness, which is what many may feel once they were ordered to remain at home, in order to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Accordingly, it is suggested that humans can indeed control their days, their actions, their choices and their perception of the situation. Yes, it is true that during this period individuals were not able to visit their children, grandchildren or elderly parents. However, living in the 21st century, surrounded by many technological advances, it is possible to connect with them even more intimately than when regular meetings take place. Intimacy is not closely linked to distance. It is a reflection of our behaviour and our ability to get closer to the ones we connect with. Visitations can take place, within the limitations of standing six feet away from those we visit. It can be done as frequently as people wish, and show our caring and connection by checking on those we care for frequently.
Instead of perceiving this period as one when we are forced to huddle at home, and social connections are prohibited, there is a different way of viewing this period. First, while physical connections are discouraged, social and intimate connections can flourish either via the Internet, telephones, Facebook, and so on, or by visiting our neighbours and loved ones, without going into their homes and maintaining the required distance. Not only do many people take social connection for granted, but there are those who do not bother to remain connected, simply because daily chores and responsibilities take over. Humanity is now going through a very special time, which may not occur again during our life time. It seems that the world stopped moving. Yet, unlike what people had been accustomed to, those who yearn for social connection are kinder and greet each other, where on regular days they would probably not do so. Being at home has also allowed people to do various things that they wanted to do, but did not have the time for these activities before the COVID era.
It stands to reason that this period of isolation will not last much longer. It may be that while many cannot wait for life to, once again, be rushed and hectic, there are others who may not be prepared to return to the hum drum of ‘regular’ life. It’s been quite good to take a breather, become more self-aware, and get to know myself and others better [see chapter 11 in my book for a more detailed description of how to address loneliness].
Rokach, A. (2013). Loneliness, love and all that’s between: A psychological look at what makes us lonely and what keeps us in love. NY: Nova Pub.
Rokach, A. (2019). The psychological journey to and from loneliness: Development, causes, and effects of social and emotional isolation. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.