Posted on 30th September 2022 at 21:18
I have been running some workshops recently on the topic of life after the Covid-19 pandemic and the theme of loneliness has been a recurring one. As in the therapy session, at times it emerges indirectly, through symptoms such as lack of motivation or energy. Loneliness occurs when there is a gap between our need for connection to another (social connection) and our actual experience of it. This means that yes indeed, we can be lonely in a crowd. Loneliness runs through feelings of isolation, abandonment, rejection, estrangement, forlorning and loss. How many of these feelings have we experienced through two years of lockdowns and uncertainty? Another common finding in the aftermath of the pandemic is that people expected we would automatically and instantly revert to ‘normal,’ like flicking a switch. Many are finding that this has not been the case and have been taken unaware by feelings of caution and distrust that prevents them from jumping back in socially. This makes sense when we become aware that adaptation and readaptation of our nervous system takes time, even if it is something we knew before. We were told there was a dangerous virus out there, that it wasn’t safe and to take cover. Now we have to convince that same nervous system that it is safe again, at least from the virus. At the same time, we are aware that there are other threats and stressors which may impinge on the process.
Persistent feelings of loneliness pose an insidious threat to well being and physical health. Apart from predisposing to depression, loneliness is also a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and dementia. It affects sleep and immunity. It is thought that cancer can spread more quickly in lonely individuals. [1,2] Even when we have relationships in our life, a lack of authenticity in those relationships can result in loneliness.
What makes it difficult for people to break the cycle of loneliness? In many cases fear, particularly of rejection or exclusion. Psychology research tells us that chronically lonely people are extra sensitive to signs of potential rejection and pick up on them more quickly than others. As a type of negative bias it can, ironically, result in avoiding social interaction.  This makes remedial suggestions of joining clubs et cetera, difficult to take on. It may be confused with social anxiety and like all defences, it is protective in its objective. Coupled with the wariness of re engaging with a world no longer under pandemic threat, protecting ourselves against anticipated rejection or exclusion also reduces our chances of reconnection. The risk of chronic loneliness is higher in the elderly due to bereavement and because health and mobility issues can hinder social activity. But it is no longer just the elderly that are at high risk. The phone scrolling era has also damaged our ability to connect with other people. Tables in staff rooms and canteens that traditionally were buzzing with conversation, are now quieter, as many around the table have their head down scrolling through their phones. Even when there is conversation, people withdraw to their phone which can signal rejection of the company they are in or disinterest in the conversation. Sherry Turkle , talks about how the rise of digital culture has damaged our ability to connect. Meaningful connection in person requires us to be our [authentic] selves openly with others. Online conversations in contrast, lack depth and therefore leave us feeling empty.
In terms of psychoanalytic discourse, loneliness has been not really been addressed directly but discussed more from the aspect of solitude or the state of being alone. Psychoanalysts have mapped this state from early childhood through to impact in adult life, from fear of solitude and separation anxiety to the capacity to be alone and indeed, the need to be alone. Freud  considered loneliness to be native to the human condition (due to the conflict of the instinctual drives giving us a sense of loss and abandonment). Fromm  believed we are born with a sense of connection that is damaged by the social climate we live in. The ability of an individual to inhabit their ‘authentic self’ was what Fromm believed to be the solution. The authentic self as a state of being that is created from the inside out. Winnicott  discussed the importance of the capacity to be alone or the ability to be alone, differentiating it from the concepts of withdrawal and loneliness. This capacity originates from the internalisation by the child, of the non-intrusive, background presence of a mothering figure. It is the capacity to be alone in the presence of others, the ability to share solitude without anxiety rising. Choosing solitude therefore to relax, reflect or create is not the same as loneliness. Some people replenish their energy this way.
Concerns have been raised around the continuing practice of working from home. The risk of loneliness increases due to remote working according to psychology studies, particularly with certain personality types. Those whose preference is human interaction and working as part of a team will need support from employers, if returning to the office is not an option. Employees that need recognition through respect, feeling valued and being affirmed, also struggle with working remotely. Of course, some personality types are suited to remote working. Employees who have the ability for self reflection whether reflecting on the past or imagining the future, tend to manage loneliness more successfully.  I previously discussed working from home in terms of boundaries between work life and home life. Included in that is the importance of maintaining meaningful social connection.
If we visit someone out of concern for loneliness, sitting down and chatting may not be sufficient to alleviate it. Doing something together fosters a deeper, more meaningful engagement. Activities like walking together, playing cards or board games, making something together and so on, are much more likely to achieve that connection that needs to be made and which sometimes can be hard for chronically lonely people to attain.
If you feel that loneliness is impacting your life and you need some help with that, get in touch here.
1. Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. W W Norton & Co.
2. Shulevitz, J. (2013) The Lethality of Loneliness: How Isolation can Kill you. https://newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you
3. Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books.
4. Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and Its Discontents. Standard Edition 21. London. Hogarth
5. Fromm, E. (1942) The Fear of Freedom [originally Escape from Freedom]. London. Routledge 1960
6. Winnicott, D.W. (1958) The Capacity to be Alone in: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London. Karnac. 1984
7. Kubiak, E. (2022) Preventing Loneliness in Remote Working: Are some psychological profiles more at risk? https://www.psychologytoday.com/ie/blog/the-behavioral-science-hub/202210/preventing-loneliness-in-remote-working
Galanaki, E. (2013) The Origins of Solitude: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Wiley
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