I write this in the middle of a pandemic. Yet long before covid, there was another ongoing epidemic that was also costing lives and damaging health. Loneliness.
Many such articles talk about the need to develop friendships. That’s good advice of course. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Even if it did, lockdowns mean you can’t be with the people you do have. So what about now? What can you do in the meantime to look after yourself?
In this article, I will give you some ideas on how to handle loneliness during a pandemic, and at any other time when people don’t seem accessible for you.
I’ll be covering 3 things:
- Why it’s important
- Why it makes sense that it feels awful
- How to help your nervous system deal with it
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT
Even at the best of times, large portions of the population are struggling with loneliness. It transcends all age groups.
It can be hard to admit to. It’s as if there is some kind of stigma to admitting that we feel lonely. It can feel like a personal failure that we are lonely and so we hide it and suffer.
But loneliness is important. It impacts our physical wellbeing at least as much as our mental wellbeing. Some studies equate the physical impact of loneliness with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. On average, when we are lonely, we don’t live as long and get more illnesses. Put bluntly, loneliness is a public health issue – or should be.
In the midst of a pandemic-related lockdown, the situation is a particular problem. Those of us who live alone are forbidden from accessing our usual social support systems. The socially hungry have been forced into starvation.
There are no events to go to. Being with others in the usual way isn’t allowed, or at least made harder. Our friends and families are separated from us.
Human wellbeing is dependent on each other. Some need social interaction more than others, but we all need each other to some degree. So when we are denied the contact of other humans, it impacts the body.
If you’ve been lonely, you’ll know the way that feels, although it is a little different for everyone. Perhaps there’s a low-level unsettled hum. A feeling of being slightly on edge. A sense that the body is wired and mildly on alert. Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe you shut down and numb in the face of extended loneliness.
Either way, it is as if your body is responding to a sense of unsafety. It makes sense that your body responds physically in these ways, as you will learn in the next section.
WHY IT MAKES SENSE THAT IT FEELS AWFUL
Humans evolved as pack animals. During our development as a species, we lived together in groups. Our ancestors were prey animals. Many prey animals live in packs for protection.
Another feature of prey animals is that we become very alert to signs of threat. Think of how skittish a deer is for instance. The slightest noise and they are on alert.
There’s a good reason for this. Those of our ancestors that didn’t have this alertness ended up as something else’s dinner. There was an evolutionary advantage to those humans who got spooked more easily. So as a species, we are very alert to signs of unsafety and threat.
Given that we are pack animals for our own protection, and given that we are responsive to a lack of safety, guess what happens when you are lonely? The body registers that you are away from the pack and your nervous system kicks in.
Think of any wildlife programme you have seen where there are lions about. All the prey animals are huddled together in the pack. But then one of them strays away from the pack. Uh oh. Bad move. Guess which one the lions are most likely to eat!
No wonder that the body feels such stress when we are lonely. We have been evolutionarily trained to understand, at a nervous system level, that to be away from the pack is dangerous.
So your nervous system responds as nervous systems are meant to. It spots a threat and seeks to mobilise you back into safety. In this case, the safety of the pack. Those bodily responses I mentioned earlier are the body’s natural response to a feeling of unsafety.
If you’ve felt lonely for any period of time, you’ll know what these unsettling feelings are like. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that the body gives you feelings of discomfort. If it didn’t feel uncomfortable, you wouldn’t scurry back to the safety of the pack. You’d be out on your own tempting the lions and tigers.
The unpleasant physical feelings of loneliness make sense. Notice how the moment you are with someone who you feel safe with, those bodily sensations vanish.
The most effective way to regulate these anxious feelings is to be with others – assuming they are people you like being with.
There is a myth that we should be independent, self-regulating people. The truth is that we are designed to co-regulate. We are soothed most by the presence of others. Think of how an infant reaches out to a caregiver when in distress.
Of course, these others can be animals too. It is little wonder that dog ownership has rocketed during the pandemic. Humans have responded to our instinctive need for co-regulation.
Yet what can you do to soothe your nervous systems when others are not so available?
HOW TO HELP YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM DEAL WITH IT
Your nervous system isn’t too happy with you being lonely. The nervous system is like an alarm for threat. Loneliness triggers a threat response. The nervous system needs to be invited back to safety. Otherwise, you will continue feeling jangly and in a state of discomfort.
The nervous system responds to information that comes from two places: your own body and the outside world.
When your body is hyped up, it is a sign to the nervous system that there must still be danger present. When your body has calmed again, it is a sign that the danger must have passed. So getting to a calm place results in the nervous system switching off your fight and flight mechanism.
Our senses bring the information from the outside world: smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. When you need to invite your nervous system back to safety, you can use these senses as a checklist of invites.
So let’s do that now.
The olfactory nerve is the one that delivers your sense of smell. It’s one of the fastest nerves. So the information you get from smell reaches the brain especially quickly. Finding smells that soothe you is an important resource.
What are the smells that make you feel safer? What smells relax you or feel comforting? What smells take you back to a moment where you felt safe and protected?
If you can identify a smell that invites you back to safety, then you can simply smell that to get a speedy effect.
What do you look at that tends to calm you?
Maybe you look at photos of cute animals. I love to watch the BBC show Pooch Perfect, a show about dog groomers. I smile the whole way through and find it calming and funny to watch the dogs getting their hair cut.
Nature scenes calm many people. If you’re able to look out of your window and see a scene of green, that would be good to do when anxious. If not, maybe looking at some photographs of nature scenes or a video of the sea rolling in and hitting the shore.
Remember that anything that has a calming effect on you invites the nervous system into a sense of safety.
What is it that you can listen to that makes you feel safer?
There is a particular kind of voice tone that is known to invite safety. You hear this tone of voice when parents coo at their newborn baby or a dog owner coos at their dog. It is often referred to as motherese, and studies show that it soothes the nervous system.
Remember that when you talk in motherese, your nervous system hears it too. It may well be that one of the advantages of dog ownership is that you get to hear yourself speaking in that tone of voice to your dog.
If you feel jangly, maybe you could talk to an imaginary dog in classic motherese. Bend down and talk to it in that higher-pitched, tuneful way that dog owners use. I know it might seem odd, but your nervous system will thank you for it.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, how about music? If you created a playlist for music that would soothe you, what would be on it?
Scientists researched the soothing impact of music on the nervous system. The most soothing song was Enya’s Only Time. It even worked on people who said they were not a fan of Enya.
I find that the original soundtrack of Mary Poppins is very soothing. Ambient music has also been shown to soothe the nervous system.
What music soothes you?
You can taste something that makes you feel safe and comforted.
For instance, if I have a hot lemon and ginger tea with a dash of honey that feels really comforting to me.
Others may go for soup or broth with a hunk of bread.
Perhaps there was food you used to enjoy when younger that would make you feel pampered and safe.
Again, everyone is different as foods, drinks and tastes will have different associations depending on your own life experiences.
What might work for you?
Obviously, when you’re on your own, it’s difficult to get touch.
If you have a pet, your animal can be a good source of touch. Stroking your dog, cat or rabbit is very calming.
You can even use your own touch to feel more safe and calm. For instance, the trauma therapist Peter Levine teaches a self hug designed to make you feel safer. Put your right hand under your left armpit. Put your left hand on your upper right arm, just beneath the shoulder. Give yourself a squeeze. Maybe even some firm and reassuring pats.
Even hugging yourself and then firmly patting the boundaries of your body can feel good for many.
Others love to hug a hot water bottle or wrap up tight in a thick dressing gown. Some like to use a weighted blanket.
What kind of touch would work for you?
Two Other Things To Do With The Body
When the nervous system is on alert, it responds by giving you excess energy. It pumps cortisol and adrenaline into the body. It increases your heart rate. It does this because it predicts that you need to run to get away from danger.
When you feel agitated, responding with exercise helps to burn off that extra energy. It doesn’t need to be a sprint. A walk will do the job.
Have fun with it. Maybe an online dance class, or just play some uplifting music and dance about until you sense that you’ve burnt off the energy. Whatever it is, movement will help.
I said earlier that when we calm the body, it responds by assuming the threat has gone. It switches off the nervous system responses that are causing the discomfort.
Breathing exercises can help with this. Any breathing exercise that has you slow down your breathing will reduce your heart rate to a calmer place.
Likewise, any breathing exercise that has you breathing out for longer than you breathe in will reduce your heart rate.
If you want a really fun way to do that, sing. When you sing, your heart rate lowers.
So let’s summarise all that.
Loneliness is a public health issue. Left unchecked, the nervous system responses that are triggered by loneliness can harm our health.
The typical way to turn off those nervous system responses is to be with other people, assuming they are people you like to be with. You re-enter the safety of the pack. The nervous system has done its job.
Yet without people, you can use your senses to invite yourself back into a feeling of safety, and so switch off those distressing feelings. You can ask: what can I smell, see, hear, taste or touch that will soothe me?
You may not have an answer for every one of the five senses. That’s okay. Whatever you find is good enough. Each strategy can become part of a resource pack to turn to when your nervous system is triggered through loneliness.
You can move your body in response to your nervous system mobilising you. When stressed, moving is what your body wants and expects you to do. So give it what it needs by doing some form of exercise.
Likewise, you can lower your heart rate by breathing slowly or making your out-breaths last longer than your in-breaths. Singing is a fun way to do that.
Be gentle with yourself. If things feel really tough at the moment, it is normal to feel that way. Your nervous system responds how it was designed to. Use these approaches to be a good friend to yourself whenever it happens.
When you do connect with others without meeting in person, try to have calls rather than just relying on texts. That way you’re interacting with a human rather than a screen, and your nervous system will like it more.
Once you know what works for you, keep using it whenever you need to.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice