How to win a battle against loneliness
Loneliness: we all feel it sometimes, whether it be that day when you ate lunch alone in the dining hall, or the moment after you liked everyone’s Instagram pictures only to feel depleted.
During a recent Tusitala interview, the school counselor Kate Newhouse takes us on a journey to demystify the driving factors behind this emotion and how we can help each other in simple ways. “[Loneliness] is actually quite a significant phenomenon in physical health,” Newhouse explains, “It is considered as deleterious as a tobacco habit.”
There is a reason behind why we might feel particularly lonely during these times of physical separation. Touch is the missing ingredient. “There’s an element of socialization that involves touch even if it’s not between very close friends,” Newhouse points out.
Touch can also manifest in a lot of ways. “You might touch one another on the shoulder, on the elbows, walking past somebody that you’re friendly with. All those little, sort of mini, nonverbal communications make us feel included, make us feel collaborated with, may give us a sense of belonging,” says Newhouse. And this is exactly why practices like dog therapy are especially important. When it is physically unsafe for us to meet friends and family, having a pet to cuddle with becomes all the more comforting. Our need for touch may be what is motivating people to adopt pets during this time.
After all, the magic of our fluffy friends is real. “An animal will hop up on your lap and put their chin on your hand. It’s this thing where our nervous system gets to relate to another being and gives us a sense of security and calmness,” Newhouse explains this phenomenon from a psychological point of view.
But touch is not the sole element of our social equation. There are other ways in which we can make up for our missing social life. It could be a call from a friend or a zoom group study sessions. “Thank goodness we have the sorts of telecommunications so that we can hear someone’s voice!” Newhouse exclaims, “I hear that a lot; people say we can text and we can email, but I just want to hear your voice. I’m having colleagues even now just call me so that we can hear one other’s voices. We discuss something rather than just trading emails.” Something as simple as a call with a friend can brighten our day. Furthermore, seeing a friendly face on the screen also satisfies the visual aspects of our social life.
However, it is important to note that social platforms like Instagram impact us differently. “Different from seeing a friendly face pop up, [Instagram] is actually rather like providing connections that can make us feel self-critical,” says Newhouse. “I know that [Instagram] is intended to be a social connector, and it certainly is a form of communication. But I’m not sure if there’s any evidence that it connects people in an emotional way or in a way that combats loneliness. It seems to me to be working against that actually.” According to Newhouse, these platforms might cause us to go into a “comparison mind.” When we scroll through endless pictures depicting the pinnacle moments of others’ lives, we might end up judging ourselves too harshly and lose track of the happiness in our own worlds.
Loneliness is not a “recent” issue that had just emerged with the pandemic. It has long plagued countries like the United States. It has long plagued countries like the United States. “I think often people are hesitant to label loneliness as [a wellness risk], particularly in western culture. We are independent. We don’t often live in multi-generational housing, so there is this cultural expectation that we are supposed to be independent and be happy doing so. Yet the result is not great for our health; we are by nature social beings,” Newhouse comments.
To wrap up, Newhouse returns to the core of human relationships and the three critical components of happiness: “We need a sense of purpose in our lives. We need a practice of gratitude, and we need healthy relationships. Being physically isolated is different from being lonely. It’s a lack of connections with other humans, or with other beings, is when we experience loneliness. It’s not always about proximity.”
So what can we do right now to help each other during remote learning? Here’s a quick guide to your zoom social life compiled together from the interview with Kate Newhouse:
You don’t always have to mute yourself when you enter a meeting. Initiate a conversation in your breakout room if you haven’t received instructions yet.
Address people by name when interacting with them.
Make “a bid for connection” and start a conversation. It doesn’t have to be these “deep, emotionally-laden exchanges.” Even simple questions about the weather can make people feel engaged.
Pause to hear what someone else has to say after you asked a question. Pausing to listen is a powerful move.
“Some stress allows us to grow and develop new skills, and some stress, if it’s chronic enough and significant enough, can really be toxic for us. The stress of being alone or being lonely can be an opportunity for us to double down on our relationship with ourselves. One of the jokes I make clinically is you never want to spend too much time between your two ears, it’s a danger zone and a war zone. As difficult as that is, it still can be a gift if we work with it. No matter what stressors that come next, our greatest allies are going to be ourselves, so if we learn to access the resources that we have internally and trust ourselves as a collaborator and a friend, and someone who’s on our own team. Then any challenge that comes our way will be met with greater ease,” Newhouse concludes.