This holiday season, you may experience an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. It is an understatement to say: you are not alone.

What is loneliness?

Scientists define loneliness as a subjective state of distress or discomfort about the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection, and their actual level of social connection.1  That is: you can be alone and not feel lonely. Conversely, you can be part of a large household or surrounded by people, yet feel exceedingly lonely.

This year, however, lockdowns; severe restrictions on travel, public gathering places (like restaurants) and private social gatherings; as well as a nationwide political divide, have deepened feelings of loneliness. As humans, we are experiencing an unprecedented collective loneliness—and on a global scale.

In the name of “safety”, businesses must now follow protocols that minimize human contact and human touch.

Where you might have once engaged in friendly banter with the barista who prepared your coffee, there is silence after you place your order (mask on). Maybe your favorite neighborhood eatery, where the staff (or patrons) felt like a surrogate ‘family’, is only open for takeout. Even taking a walk in an urban area can feel fraught with tension as people give one another wide berth to avoid “catching” anything. Our routines, from food shopping to using public transportation, are done mostly in silence (masks) and with minimal human engagement.

Yet, this lack of human contact also feeds feelings of isolation, fear, anxiety…and loneliness. This is understandable: humans are social creatures who crave connection. It starts at birth. A newborn, completely deprived of parental physical contact, can literally die. When babies are not regularly held, hugged or nuzzled by a parent, they can experience developmental delays or a general failure to thrive.2, 3, 4

Feelings of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic have profoundly affected both young and old.

Loneliness and Young Adults

A new national survey, looking at how young American adults, aged 18 to 35, were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, reveals “significant depressive symptoms” in 80% of participants.5

The results, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs at end-October, found that “alarming” levels of loneliness are associated with significant mental health issues; 61% of respondents reported “moderate” to “severe” anxiety.6

Researchers looked at the direct effects of both loneliness and social connectedness on depression, anxiety, alcohol use, and drug use. They also looked at the indirect effects of loneliness and social connectedness on alcohol and drug use, as it related to working through anxiety and depression. They also characterized relationships in pre-COVID and post-COVID behaviors and psychosocial symptomatology.

Those who reported increased feelings of loneliness also indicated an increase in: 7
♦  Alcohol consumption: 58%
♦  Drug use: 56%
♦  Anxiety: 76%
♦  Depression: 78%
♦  Feeling less connected: 58%

Alcohol has often been used as way to cope with loneliness. Most respondents (80%) reported drinking alcohol, with 30% revealing harmful and dependent levels of drinking.Participants admitted to binge drinking: 19% of respondents reported binge drinking at least once a week, and 44% reported binge drinking at least once a month.8

Overall, nearly half (49%) of respondents reported a “great degree of loneliness”. 9

Loneliness and Older Adults

A national poll of older adults, aged 50 to 80, conducted by the National Poll on Healthy Aging,found that the pandemic magnified feelings of loneliness. Compared to a similar poll conducted in 2018, a higher proportion of older adults in 2020 felt a lack of companionship (41% now vs. 34% in 2018); felt isolated (56% now vs. 27% in 2018); and had infrequent social contact (46% now vs. 28% in 2018).10

Long-term loneliness is a health hazard that can increase your risk of: 11
◊  Accelerated aging
◊  Hypertension (high blood pressure)
◊  Heart disease
◊  Obesity
◊  Chronic inflammation, which is at the root of many health conditions and diseases, from diabetes, obesity and autoimmune diseases, to heart disease, stroke and cancer.
◊  Cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
◊  Poor sleep
◊  Alcohol abuse
◊  A weakened immune system
◊  Death

Making healthy food choices and lifestyle habits can positively affect your mental and emotional state. According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, the majority of older adults (approximately 80%) who engaged in healthy behaviors during the first few months of the pandemic, such as getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising several times a week, were less likely to experience loneliness—than those who reported being in “fair” or “poor” physical health.12

The Impact of Prolonged Social Isolation 

That said, prolonged social isolation takes a toll on mind and body.

Consider prisoners who experience solitary confinement. Dr. Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member of Harvard Medical School, interviewed hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement in various state and federal penitentiaries. What he found: solitary confinement can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome—similar to acute organic brain syndrome (i.e., delirium)—characterized by hallucinations; obsessive thoughts and ruminations; panic attacks; paranoia; loss of impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli, like noise; and, problems with focus, concentration and memory.13

For many people, the recent lockdowns have felt like a form of solitary confinement. Not only can prolonged social isolation and loneliness contribute to—or worsen—anxiety and depression, it is associated with increased risk of suicide.14

I have personally seen the impact that prolonged social isolation has, especially on vulnerable populations. My mother, who is in her 80s, lives alone in an independent retirement community. She has her own apartment, but cannot walk out the door without wearing a mask (and she has problems breathing). The communal dining hall, where she once met friends for meals, has been closed since March. The shuttle that she takes to the grocery store requires reservations at least a week in advance and only allows 6 residents aboard at any given time. She once had an active social life. When I asked my mother if she still socialized with her friends, she said: “What’s the point? I cannot understand a word they’re saying when they are wearing masks!”  This fuels her sense of isolation, anxiety, powerlessness, and I have seen her health backslide. It is hard to witness.

Mask-wearing discourages human interaction, which increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. There is also plenty of room for misinterpretation when you speak while wearing a mask. One distressed mother shared how her 15-year-old son was savagely beaten at school because the other boys had misheard what her son was saying (mask on).

Though masks have been mandated in most states, studies suggest that their efficacy is questionable at best, especially for healthy people. In a randomized clinical trial that compared the efficacy of cloth masks versus medical masks in hospital settings where health care workers were at high risk of being exposed to respiratory infections, researchers found that rates of all infection outcomes were highest with cloth masks. 15  In fact, the researchers concluded: “The results caution against the use of cloth masks. This is an important finding to inform occupational health and safety. Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” 16

Personally, as someone who advocates for health and wellness, I choose not to wear a mask one second longer than absolutely necessary (e.g., in a store, medical appointments), and I do not wear a mask outdoors. In addition to restricting oxygen intake and rebreathing your own carbon dioxide, the typical blue medical face mask contains the chemical toxin PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, a.k.a. Teflon).17  No thank you.

This video by Tammy Herrema Clark is particularly illuminating on the topic of masks. Clark has worked for OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) and is a Personal Protective Equipment expert. So, too, is this article, where medical television producer, Del Bigtree, measures the CO2 toxicity in his son’s mask. Dr. Peter Breggin, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and former consultant to the National Institute of Mental Health, outlines the adverse effects of mask-wearing for both mental and physical health in this point-by-point article.

According to Dr. Breggin: “While impeding person-to-person transmission is key to limiting the outbreak, so far little importance has been given to the events taking place after a transmission has happened, when [our own body’s] innate immunity plays a crucial role. The main purpose of the innate immune response is to immediately prevent the spread and movement of foreign pathogens throughout the body. The innate immunity’s efficacy is highly dependent on the viral load. If face masks determine a humid habitat where the SARS-CoV-2 can remain active due to the water vapour continuously provided by breathing and captured by the mask fabric, they determine an increase in viral load and therefore they can cause a defeat of the innate immunity and an increase in infections.18

Please do not construe the information I share as “medical advice” or a “political statement”. I am sharing information from published studies in medical journals and information from top health experts; you decide.

The Antidote to Loneliness?

Human connection.

Social isolation and loneliness can take a tremendous toll on our minds and bodies.

In a time of lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing, what does human connection look like?

I live on a road where, when I take my daily walk, I come into contact with people—both neighbors and strangers—who are not wearing masks. I make direct eye contact. I smile and wave. Time permitting (for either party), I stop and engage in conversation: I listen more than I talk; I am fully present, not distracted by my phone—or anything else in my environment. I respect others’ physical space: if someone is more comfortable standing further apart, I respect this. If someone wants to move closer to me and/or hug me, I do not recoil from contact because I have confidence in my own immune system, and I do not regard humans as “contagion”.

For me, human connection has looked like this these last few months:
–When 5-year old Aidan called out to me from his driveway, I walked over and watched him take a spin in his pedal car as he chatted enthusiastically a mile a minute.
–My neighbor Dag gave me valuable tips for buying a generator, showing me the one on the side of his house, and connecting me with an electrician friend of his.
–When I ran into another neighbor at his mailbox, he smiled and introduced himself (he has lived on my road for many years, but we never made contact.) We ended up having a conversation about bird-watching, running and the gut microbiome!
–On another day, two pre-teen girls from the neighborhood excitedly shared the story of their bike ride to an abandoned house.
–After an older neighbor and I talked about his Parkinson’s symptoms, and when I offered a few food/lifestyle suggestions that he could make, he gave me a big hug. As my neighbor is a tough guy stoic, I was touched by his sweet gesture.

Obviously, if you are coming down with a cold, flu or other virus; feel sick and/or experiencing symptoms; feel unwell in any way; or, if you are immunocompromised, stay at home. Take good care of yourself, and do not expose yourself to others.

How to Create Connection

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. –Maya Angelou

Like anything else, creating human connection starts with mindset.

One important mindset shift in creating connection is to choose faith over fear. Living in a constant state of low-grade (or high-level) fear and anxiety weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria. Energetically, what we fear the most is often what we tend to attract.  How we perceive the outside world starts with cultivating awareness about what is going on inside of ourselves. To this end:

1. Be discerning about your news consumption.

Today’s 24/7 news cycle literally assaults viewers with a barrage of negativity, fueling anxiety, fear, overwhelm and feelings of powerlessness. Like processed foods, news headlines are click bait, designed to keep you hooked and wanting more.

Humans naturally have a negativity bias; meaning, the human brain is wired to detect threats, so it will pay more attention to negative or scary information that could potentially help avoid a harmful situation.19  However, overconsuming gloom-and-doom news stories can take a toll on your mental and physical health. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers found that participants who were only exposed to negative television news bulletins experienced greater levels of anxiety and sadness; this translated to these same participants experiencing a significant increase in worrisome thoughts about their own lives.20

2. Get comfortable being with yourself.

I know…this collective “time out” was not our choice. Yet, alone time, even amidst chaos, can be enjoyable. Meditation, nature walks, painting, playing or listening to music, reading, writing or journaling, woodworking projects—or anything that gets your creative juices flowing—can all be sources of enjoyment, relaxation and inspiration. As Dr. Vivek Murthy, author of The Healing Power of a Sometimes Lonely World, advises: “Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with yourself.”

3. Prioritize self-care.

Feeling blue can trigger a compulsion to fill the void with anything that takes the edge off the loneliness. Those struggling with loneliness are more likely to engage in risky and addictive self-medicating behaviors: smoking; drinking alcohol to excess; overeating (anything and everything!); having unprotected hook-up sex or cybersex; doing recreational drugs (pot, vaping); and, being addicted to the internet.21, 22

While these activities may feel good in the moment, they often have physical and emotional consequences—and, ultimately, leave you feeling even more empty and lonely afterward. The impact of chronic loneliness is associated with physical health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as a higher risk of early death.23

Instead: focus on taking very good care of yourself. Sleep is key to balanced mood: go to bed before midnight and get enough sleep (7 to 9 hours). Eat nutrient-dense, real food meals; and, if you have the energy, cook a few simple meals. Practice deep breathing. Go outside and get fresh air and sunlight. Take walks. Engage in exercise you enjoy (and have the energy for), whether it’s yoga, Pilates or weight-lifting. If you feel “stuck”, work with a functional health coach or therapist to help you move forward. Limit processed foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol, all of which have mood-altering effects and can worsen anxiety and depression. Avoid binge-drinking. And avoid foods that trigger binge-eating.

When you consistently practice self-care, you create a healthy physical foundation, which boosts immunity, increases your faith in your body’s strength and resilience—and lessens fear and anxiety. By connecting with yourself in ways that are physically and emotionally nourishing, you are better able to connect with others. How well we connect with ourselves is a good predictor of how well we will connect with others.

4. Choose to see people as human beings—not as deadly contagion.

When we interact with others, the smallest of human gestures contributes to positive energy that fosters connection. Smile. Make eye contact. Wave. Speak in a friendly tone.

Yes, COVID-19 is real. Studies have shown the most acute cases of COVID-19 and/or requiring hospitalization with COVID-19 are strongly associated with co-morbidities, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease—all conditions of chronic inflammation. The good news? You can be proactive in reducing inflammation through these food and lifestyle modifications.

And more good news! Even if you test positive for COVID-19, the survival rate is very high: 99.98 to 99.5 if you are under age 70. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), the Infection Fatality Ratio (IFR) of COVID-19 refers to the number of people who die “of the disease among all infected individuals (symptomatic and asymptomatic).”  When the IFR estimate—stated as a percentage of all those infected (symptomatic and asymptomatic) who are surviving—the breakout by age is: 24
0-19 years:  99.997%
20-40 years:  99.98%
50-69 years:  99.5%
70+ years:  94.6%
*80+ not included

5. Take the time to really listen.

There is an art to listening, which is essential for creating meaningful human connection. Here are a few tips.

–Slow down. Be mindful not to interrupt someone in the middle of expressing a thought, especially if they are older adults. Not everyone talks in sound bites. Let someone fully express their thoughts before responding.

–Get curious. When someone starts to share a story or experience, don’t assume that you know how their story ends and jump right into problem solving—as in: “Yeah, yeah, yeah…so, here’s what you do.”  Instead get curious. Ask questions in a non-judgmental way, like: “What happened next?”; “What do you think you’re going to do?”; or, “How do you feel about that?”  Try reflective listening by repeating back what you think the other person is saying: “So, even though you’ve been diagnosed with this complicated health condition, you’re saying that you feel emotionally lighter and freer than you have in a long time…am I understanding you correctly?”

–Be fully present. Do not multitask when you are conversing with someone else. Our brains are wired to do one task at a time efficiently, and multi-tasking while talking with someone (e.g., driving while on a call; Google searching topics or scrolling through social media during a video chat or phone call) means that you are not fully present. And, frankly, it’s disrespectful. How can you be fully present in a conversation?  Make eye contact. Listen to what someone says—without interrupting, interjecting, or thinking about how you intend to respond.

–Allow space for vulnerability.  No matter what you see on Instagram, nobody has a “perfect” life. We create connection when we allow others to see our humanity and give them space to share theirs. If it feels natural and appropriate, have the courage to be vulnerable (e.g., “When I started taking care of my sick father—after we had been estranged for many years—I found myself feeling resentful, so I started seeing a therapist.”).

6. Write a letter.

The power of writing a letter cannot be underestimated. Having written poetry and short stories as a child for the elementary school paper, then, later becoming a well-published freelance writer, I am someone who believes in the power of the written word. When you write a letter, you put time, energy and thought into what you want to communicate. Being authentic or vulnerable can sometimes feel easier when you write a letter. As mementos, letters are a snapshot in time, to which you can always return. And…your handwriting is a personal, tangible part of yourself that you impart on paper—this cannot be replicated in an email or text. I, for one, have always enjoyed receiving handwritten letters; it is a very intimate form of communication and cultivates connection.

Sources:
1  Psychology Today.
2  Psychology Today. Mar 1, 2010
3  Pediatrics & Child Health. Vol. 15, Issue 3, Mar 2010, pp. 153-156.
4  Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. Vol. 35, Feb. 2019, pp. 5-11.
5, 6, 7, 9  Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Oct. 28, 2020
10, 12 National Poll on Healthy Aging. Sept. 14, 2020
11  Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Oct. 2010. Vol 40, Issue 2, pp. 218-227.
13  Madrid vs. Gomez. Sept. 1993, 889F. Supp. 1146.
14  Journal of Affective Disorder. Feb 15, 2019, Vol. 245, pp. 653-667.
15, 16  BMJ Open. Infectious Diseases Research. Mar 2015.
17  Health Impact News. Oct. 27, 2020.
18  Life Site. Nov. 12, 2020.
19  Psychological Bulletin. May 2008; 134(3); 383-403.
20  British Journal of Psychology. 13 April 2011.
21, 23  Journal of Family Violence. Nov. 2020
22  Addictive Behaviors Report. Vol. 10, Dec. 2019
24  NBC 26. Oct. 20, 2020.