“I was having discussions with chairs. I was thinking, why don’t you answer me? You’re stuck in four walls and you see nobody. You get up the next day and who do you see? Nobody.”
This is a quote from a 56-year-old man who lives alone in the north of England, as reported by the BBC. It captures “the corrosive, creeping ache of lockdown loneliness”.
Loneliness was becoming a big problem in the UK and the US before the pandemic struck, but lockdown has exacerbated it for many people, particularly during the winter months.
Human beings are not built for isolation – we are social creatures. And if we are deprived of connection for prolonged periods of time, we put ourselves at risk of a range of serious physical and psychological problems.
The list is horrifying. It includes depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, obesity, a weakened immune system, strokes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and, ultimately, premature death.
The biology of loneliness
According to Steve Cole PhD, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, it’s possible that loneliness could alter the tendency of cells in the immune system to promote inflammation, which is necessary to help our bodies heal. But inflammation that lasts too long increases the risk of chronic diseases.
Quoted in an article published by the National Institute on Aging in the US, Dr Cole says: “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain, leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
It’s hard enough dealing with the emotional effects of social isolation, let alone the biology of loneliness. Worrying about potential health problems is probably going to make things worse.
So how can you neutralise the toxic effects of loneliness? As the US and UK begin to emerge from lockdown, how can you embark on the long journey back to social connection and a healthy life?
The biology of optimism
According to an article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, studies that investigated the correlation between optimism and health “suggest that optimists generally have better physical health, less cardiovascular diseases and improved immunological functioning”.
In his book Flourish, Dr Martin Seligman, founding father of the science of positive psychology, echoes this by suggesting that optimists believe that their actions matter, are more likely to seek and follow medical advice and have a social support network. By contrast, pessimists often lapse into passive helplessness and are less likely to take good care of themselves.
Pessimism and loneliness often go hand in hand, but Dr Seligman argues that you can learn how to be optimistic and therefore tap into the biology of optimism, which can have a positive effect on your wellbeing.
Three simple ways to start learning optimism
For someone experiencing feelings of loneliness, this may seem like a near-impossible task. However, there are some simple steps you can take to make a start. Here are three:
- Gratitude practice: Every day, write down three things that you are grateful for. They can be as simple as being glad that the sun is shining, that you can hear birdsong, or that you have a roof over your head. The more you start to focus on gratitude, the more your mind will focus on the positive and help to overcome innate negative bias.
- Being in nature: Feeling lonely can make you withdraw and not want to venture out, but being outdoors and tuning into nature can give you a sense that you are connected to the rhythm of life - even if it’s just by watching a plant grow in your garden or a public space.
- Writing about your Best Possible Self: According to positivepsychology.com, research has shown that visualizing and writing about your Best Possible Self in an imaginary future in which you feel fulfilled and have everything you need has been found to boost wellbeing and mood (King, 2001; Peters et al, 2010; Meevissen et al 2011).
And there is another way. Sign up to Zgmund and share your feelings in a safe space facilitated by empathic AI, with total anonymity and confidentiality guaranteed. Engaging in meaningful conversation with like-minded people is definitely more rewarding than talking to chairs.