Health

Social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on loneliness around the world as more and more people feel comfortable voicing their struggles. By Janet Stone.

Loneliness in the midst of Covid-19

Laura Fargher and her dog, Hugo.
Credit: Supplied

As Britain went back into a coronavirus-induced lockdown on Thursday, Laura Fargher knew what lay ahead. Fargher, 58, has suffered from loneliness for decades. It’s a condition that, when chronic, has triggered bouts of depression, although she has largely kept it hidden. But when the world began to shut down in response to Covid-19 earlier this year, Fargher felt she finally had the imprimatur to share her story.

“When we went into lockdown and people started talking about loneliness, I felt less hidden,” says Fargher, who lives in Nottingham, in central England’s Midlands region. “I thought, ‘Great, everyone is talking about this thing I’ve experienced’, and that gave me the confidence to speak out. And not just the confidence, almost an imperative – now is my time, parts of my experience could resonate with someone else.”

At her lowest point in her early 40s, Fargher was grieving the breakdown of her marriage and learning to accept that her dream of starting a family of her own would never come to fruition. She frequently spent entire weekends alone. It was a state of being that suddenly people right around the world were feeling. For some, the loneliness that ensued was a new experience, directly linked to Covid-19 lockdowns, working from home and more limited opportunities to socialise in person. But for others, it merely highlighted feelings they’d been dealing with for years.

“I sometimes used to talk to myself out loud to check I still had a voice,” Fargher says. “I started to convince myself that no one was interested in me and this fuelled a slow withdrawal from the world, intensifying my loneliness. Privately, I was in a lot of pain.

“The loneliness bit – the really yearning for connection but not having it, and not knowing how to have it and make it happen – that is what is so awful about it.”

According to the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report by the Australian Psychological Society, loneliness is “a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like. It is a personal feeling of social isolation. It is different to feeling alone: we can be surrounded by others but still [feel] lonely, or we can be alone but not feel lonely … Research has found that loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships. A lonely person feels that their relationships are not meaningful and that he or she is not understood by others.”

So, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, are people confusing spending time alone, disruptions to their social routines and lack of social interaction as loneliness?

“There is no doubt [loneliness] is a complex and subjective issue,” explains Dr Michelle Lim, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology. As the scientific chair of Ending Loneliness Together, a national initiative aimed at improving awareness, messaging and solutions around loneliness, she points out that “everyone has different needs”.

“There are people who are really extroverted, who get their energy from being around people,” she says. “That is why working from home can be quite difficult for some people as they just need people to bounce ideas around, they need the small talk, that is where they get their energy from.”

Taking away a person’s usual social routine and the associated interactions can still have negative effects. “Social interactions add to something,” says Lim. “You are taking away one tool, one strategy. Removing that thing in their social toolkit that used to meet their social needs.”

A survey by Swinburne’s Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute collected data from early April to mid-June, measuring whether participants had increased feelings of loneliness since the Covid-19 outbreak changed the way Australians lived, worked and socialised. One in two Australians reported feeling more lonely. In Britain and the United States, it was two of every three people surveyed.

“[The statistics] are not too different from what we were getting in the 2018 survey,” says Lim. But she points to a shift in attitude and openness after the pandemic was declared.

“What is different is when I’m asking people if they are less lonely or more lonely, they are more willing to say, ‘Yes, I am more lonely.’ People who have never felt lonely before are now starting to feel the sting of loneliness and also people who never wanted to talk about it before are feeling that it is a more acceptable time.”

Researchers expect to continue to see differences in loneliness rates by country and region based on levels of social restrictions and the length of time restrictions are in place. Researchers also predict more people will say they are lonely in the next wave of data, due to continued de-stigmatisation of loneliness.

“A large part of why I never confided about my loneliness before was the thought of being pitied,” says Laura Fargher. “I thought, if I tell people, they are going to feel sorry for me. There is something in particular about loneliness: it felt like an impossible thing to say.”

The 2018 Loneliness Report, which recorded one in four Australians being lonely, revealed that lonely Australians are 15.2 per cent more likely to be depressed and 13.1 per cent more likely to be anxious about social interactions than those who are not lonely. As well as the increased risk of detrimental mental health issues, the condition can also lead to shocking physical effects. According to research by Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, social isolation and loneliness can increase early mortality rates. She says lacking social connections carries a similar risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exceeds the risk of inactivity and obesity.

“Humans are naturally sociable creatures that thrive when they feel part of a group,” says Michelle Lim. “You need people to look out for you and you need to feel like people have your back.”

Studies have also linked the ability to cope with pain and quickly recover from infections to loneliness.

“When you look at neuroimaging studies and you look at your tolerance to pain and your ability to fight off infection, if you are less lonely you are more likely to have better outcomes in all these things,” says Lim.

“There is something about feeling valued, something about feeling connected, that you’re part of something, that makes your body less stressed out. We know when we feel lonely our brain is actually processing that as a stress response and we know that stress is bad for health.”

Ending Loneliness Together, previously the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, was set up in 2016 to raise awareness of loneliness and influence policy and community understanding, equipping GPs, psychologists and government agencies to better deal with the issue.

“With Covid I think the language is changing,” says Lim. “People are changing their negative beliefs about people who are lonely because of their experience or because of the experience of someone they know.”

Laura Fargher says getting a dog at the beginning of lockdown was the best decision she has ever made. “He brings me joy every day and he gives me purpose – something that was lacking outside of my work,” she says. “He gives me a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to speak to people, to go for walks and to say ‘no’ to working long hours.”

She has also moved closer to family after several relocations. “If I had nothing on the weekend, I could nip around for a cup of tea, be invited around for a Sunday dinner, go for a walk,” she says. “And that made a difference knowing I could do that.

“I’ve moved around too much, I recognise that. I needed to settle in one place, put down roots and build that community.”

Fargher says she has learnt to live with and manage her loneliness.

“I’ve learnt to accept my aloneness and made changes in my life and my relationships that help me feel less lonely,” she says. “But, like some long-term health conditions, I believe you never fully recover. You go into remission. My periods of remission are getting longer, and I welcome this.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "All the lonely people".

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Janet Stone is a freelance journalist based on the Gold Coast.