For some, the news of a second wave brings fears of intense isolation. People I talk to are already constrained by depression or anxiety, and so another lockdown will only make a hard situation worse.
But are we talking about isolation or loneliness? The news outlets rarely make this distinction but I think it is an important one. Even if we are forced into isolation, it does not mean that we will feel lonely. For some, physical isolation is a time of peace and calm, away from the fuss and noise of others. For others, loneliness still gnaws at their bones, even when they are surrounded by other people.
I like to think of loneliness as a subjective state falling in the gap between the quality of social contact that is expected, and the quality of social contact that is actually achieved.
So how can we tackle loneliness (especially during this pandemic)?
When I think of tackling loneliness it helps me to think of it in terms of these three categories -
1.Loneliness may be circumstantial.
For example, we may live in a community that offers little human contact, or we are part of a social group who tend to experience less social contact (for example, the elderly).
2.Loneliness may be caused by something behavioral.
In other words, there is something that we are doing (or not doing) that makes our loneliness worse. For example, we may over-schedule ourselves so that we lessen the chances of human contact.
3.Our loneliness may be experiential.
So we may use certain strategies to avoid intimate contact with others. For example, we may use certain language that keeps us feeling emotionally distanced from others. Here is one example: I have a friend who makes my heart leap with joy, and instead of saying ‘I feel joy when I am with you’ (‘I / You’ language) I say ‘This is fun’. I keep a distance from her, and in turn, I keep myself isolated. If I were to expect a closer friendship, this may leave me feeling lonely.
Isolated by our assumptions
If you feel lonely then you need to reflect on the assumptions you are making about yourself and the world around you. For example, you might assume that a group of people who are laughing are really laughing at you. As a result, you withdraw and only feel more lonely. In reality, there are multiple reasons why a group of people might laugh (including their own nervousness or sense of uncertainty about social contact).
To reflect carefully on your assumptions helps you to unearth any negative beliefs you are holding about yourself or others. You may have been given an unrealistic perception that you are in some way defective, or the world is more threatening than it really is. All of this can increase your sense of loneliness, and lead to behavior that increased your isolation.
Perceptions distorted by social media
If loneliness is a subjective state falling between the quality of expected and achieved social contact, social media is bound to play a big part in this.
Our expectations of our own social contact are fueled by images on social media, and yet these are mere snapshots of a life we know little about. Can we really measure the quality of the social contact enjoyed by someone who smiles in front of a fireplace on TikTok, Instagram or Facebook, even if their kids do have matching onesies?
The reality is that social media is causing us to increase our sense of loneliness by over-estimating the quality of social contact enjoyed by others, and under-estimating our own.
Don't struggle alone
News of a second wave is scary, not least because of the health implications, and the impact on the economy, but it increases the likelihood that we will have to isolate ourselves in some way. But we do not have to feel lonely. And you certainly do not have to struggle alone.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Psychotherapist in Ridgewood, New Jersey