I think it's fair to say that none of us imagined that COVID would be affecting all of our lives for so long. The long term impacts of COVID are devastating and far reaching ranging from loss of a loved one, financial insecurity, lack of education, lack of personal space, huge change in routine, feelings of insecurity, fear of the unknown, desperation and of course isolation to name but a few. Such difficult times for everyone and all in so many personally individual ways.
It is important not to confuse loneliness with social isolation. Social isolation tends to be a measure of how many relationships someone has and is not always a negative experience. For example you could feel perfectly satisfied being alone. Therefore social isolation is more a measure of the environment you inhabit. If, out of choice, social isolation does not become an issue, however if enforced over a long period of time it can have detrimental effects.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective and unique feeling an individual has which is always negative. This explains why people can feel lonely within a crowd - because loneliness is located within the individual and develops when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the relationships we want compared to what we actually receive.
People describe thoughts and feelings of loneliness with words like anxiety, fear, shame and helplessness. These powerful emotions can influence how we act. They can create a downward spiral where loneliness causes someone to withdraw further from family and friends and so become lonelier. Loneliness can affect how we anticipate and interpret our social experiences. This can mean we are more apprehensive or fearful of social situations or pick up on social rejection cues too readily. Another way that loneliness can worsen is if we see the cause of our loneliness as something that will not change: that it is just part of who we are or of becoming older.
Events in earlier life, personality types and styles of coping all affect our risk of loneliness in later life. While loneliness is not a mental health issue in itself, mental health problems, particularly depression and social anxiety, can cause loneliness. On the other hand, loneliness can cause mental health problems.
Loneliness isn’t a consistent state, it can come and go depending on your circumstances. It can also vary in severity. What COVID has done is the virus has prolonged the circumstances around making someone feel lonely, locking them in specific surroundings and keeping them there indefinitely. Certainly a very uncomfortable place to be.
It's almost like there is a downward spiral of events, starting with something happening (such as COVID) then, after time, someone has increasing negative thoughts about themselves and their situation which can lead to a change of behaviour such as withdrawing even further. This withdrawing behaviour unfortunately increases the negative thoughts which leads to yet more withdrawal and increased feelings of loneliness. Counselling can help this process by identifying, recognising, challenging and reframing those negative thoughts to bring about a positive shift in thought patterns. This will, over time, lead to increased activity and engagement with others which will hopefully reduce the internal feelings of loneliness.
Not everyone wants or can afford counselling. I believe that living through COVID (and continuing to do so) has led to a greater community spirit and this community spirit can have a tremendously positive effect on people's feelings of loneliness. We can all play our part in different ways. Small gestures to someone who's feeling this way can make a huge difference to their low mood. For example:-
Pop your telephone number through a neighbours door who you've not seen for a while. A 30min call even once a week would be hugely beneficial.
Offer to collect supplies if its safe for you to do so
Introduce them to zoom or skype - technology can be confusing and some people have no one to ask.
Arrange an online bake off with friends or neighbours
Start an online book or exercise class
Let someone know you are there for advice should they need to ask
And if you are the one feeling lonely, reach out to someone, friends or family or neighbours. I really believe that if people know they would be willing to support you.
For more information contact NHS feeling-lonely
Contact MWCounselling here