Isolation and health – who in your contact list might need you more

We find ourselves in a completely bewildering world where very little seems normal and life is altered, yet we are still the same people we were two months ago. Adhering to strict government guidelines and healthcare advice about how to protect ourselves and others is paramount.  What if you are lucky enough to be the worried well though and are finding isolation tough?

I have had the pleasure of going out of my own comfort zone to join video podcasts in the last fortnight. As everyone finds a different way of working, maybe we are now asking different questions of each other and connecting deeper as speech, words and writing is all we have, devoid of the impact of touch and physical connection. Speaking to working colleagues or family and friends and being able to see a face is replacing what might have been just audio calls before. The hidden and subconscious cues we can take from seeing someone’s expression are invaluable. We are left feeling that somehow we have been ‘in the same room’ and this power is not to be dismissed. Working connections mean business can still ‘work’ albeit a challenge for many and an exponential learning curve for most.

As I was asked from someone in a contrasting business field for advice on how to look out for the vulnerable mentally, it made me look properly in the evidence for what being ‘alone’ does for you. Many are happily confined with their family or friends and post amusing anecdotes of how to try and stay away from or deal with one another indoors, but what about if that one another is you and the cat?

We are designed at a cellular and hormonal level to connect and we physiologically thrive on that connection. Our lives are designed to be together yet we have had no preparation for this separation, no baby steps, the virus behaviour meant we had to quickly act for our own and ultimately the world’s protection.

We know that what is important is the quality of social interaction, not the volume. The number of friends on facebook is not a marker of love received. Feeling cared for and having ‘others to rely on’ is what makes us feel safe. Goodness knows our feelings of safety are a little ragged at the moment. Knowing your friend, neighbour or office colleague feels the same kind of makes it feel a bit better.

Most of the studies I could find regarding loneliness on a quick search were looking at the elderly. The elderly can be isolated through bereavement or simply their mobility and confidence reducing their ability to get out and socialise. Bringing the party to granny is really important but now we have to do it with tech as we simply cannot be in the room with her.
Maybe we are actually in more frequent contact now than we would normally be – because we are conscious of the situation and the potential for it to escalate at any moment.

Long term loneliness can mean our sympathetic nervous system that makes us jittery goes into a bit of overdrive. This can lead to increased levels of inflammation in the body and knock on effects of not sleeping. Let this go on for years and chances are our blood pressure, cortisol and cholesterol will climb and it literally won’t do our hearts and vessels any good. Isolation in the very long term carries the morbidity weight of obesity or smoking on our health. Maybe now we will look up and look at those in our stratosphere who are normally lonely and stretch out a hand to them. And not stop doing it once this is over.

This short term lockdown is easily doable though and any changes in health can often easily reverse or be prevented. What better motivation than to protect the NHS and their ventilator beds and every single worker related to the smooth running of the hospital? It is imperative that we do this and do it well. Maybe use this time now as a way to develop mechanisms for mental space that you can carry forward when we go back to normal life.

Loneliness might not mean living alone. It might be the single mum temporarily alone when her children are with their father. It might be the obsessive workaholic whose only social time was a six-a-side weekly kick around and drink at the bar after, it might be the divorced older mum whose children have flown the nest and church and worship was her weekly ‘get out of the house’ moment alongside her sanctuary. It might be the person in the abusive partnership who now cannot escape. Look around and see if any of these could be in your contact list.

How do we reach out? I discussed this with Kate Tojeiro in our podcast. Different people need different support. Just like some friends litter a text with kisses and emojis (I confess) others need just a statutory hello. The universal language may be humour at this point – don’t dismiss this. In this time tech intervention is a hell of a lot better than nothing and visual image of someone is a step up from morse code arbitrary texting.

Loneliness is a risk factor for depression and a vicious cycle of isolation occurring voluntarily and the situation worsening. If we naturally withdraw and retreat already, what happens when we are forced into it. For addicts and those receiving face to face help in self help groups they now have to find another way. I read a lovely story last week about an addict group sharing a morning and afternoon gratitude list out. Not the same as counselling and face to face support but you have to show up for it and you have to reflect. We need to show up for each other now.

Keep your head space clear for the stress you may have to endure. Be well informed from expert sources, the UK government and the science and tech advisors, choose your informative reading material very carefully and limit to maybe twice a day if you feel overwhelmed. Scrolling through the worse news constantly is not a burden many are designed to carry.

Routine and the regular keep us busy and focussed. You may be introvert and loving the peace. You may be happy to have this time to organise, plan and evolve. We will not get this time back so we should use it well if we are the worried well.

Think about learning to meditate or journal. Find an app or talk to a friend who knows how. There is nothing wrong with a little attempt that may become a regular practice. You cannot do it wrong, you can just try, that was a lightbulb moment for me. Journaling might be a way of vocalising your worries onto the page but remember to leave on a positive note each time – a gratitude list or happy moment from the day is a great focus. If not on your own be inventive and share positive thoughts written down, maybe collected in a jar, to be read at a later date. Not frivolous and could even be more valuable for the younger ones in the house who are often too busy to reflect.

Talk. Message. Video call. Choose your method of choice. Facetime. Whatsapp. Zoom. In zooming out your world you may actually focus on what keeps your head above water. You may find this new way of working actually works – will we all return to working away from home every day when this is over? Will we have nurtured new skills and become whizzes at listening while the sound mutes on zoom so we actually hear others? We have so many resources online now you can read about meditating, movement and connecting without going to the library. That library is closed right now so you need to create a new one within your mind.

Reach out, connect, laugh, relax, exercise, meditate, listen. Above all think of who might be lonely in your contacts. Remember not all who are isolated are lonely and not all who are lonely are isolated. If you are the lonely one reading this, reach out to your friends, they will probably be delighted that you did.

Nothing replaces talking to a medical professional who knows you.

Some resources
(remember some might be overloaded currently)
Apps for meditation and mindfulness
Breathe with Terrence
Gentle movement
yoga with adriene
do yoga with me

If you enjoyed the article, you’ll find lots more in my new book below …