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Only the Lonely...

A famous citation from the American psychotherapist Virginia Satir (1916-1988) reads: ‘We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. And we need twelve hugs a day for growth.'

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

The last few months have been nothing less than life-changing for the majority of us. But everyone’s personal experience of ‘virus living’ is a unique thing. We’ve all heard those who say they’ve loved the simplicity, the slowing down, the lack of FOMO. Then there are others who have been crawling up the wall with boredom, stressed by the uncertainty, furious at the loss of so much. But there is also a substantial slice of humanity who have suffered a more crippling mind-set. Intense loneliness.

Exasperated by lockdown and the necessity to work from home, millions are feeling that they are shackled to their computer, isolated from the rest of the world, and trying to cope with a myriad of complex emotions on their own. With families and friends at distance, and sporadic visits happening only in recent weeks, it has been a time of Zoom calls, lengthy text messages and the odd conversation from the bottom of the garden path. So near, yet so far.

“My parents are elderly and live in Scotland,” says, Julia, a HR Business Manager, “I still haven’t seen them, although I am planning to visit them soon. They are on the vulnerable list so it just hasn’t been possible until now. I live in a flat share with another woman but we hardly see each other as we’re both in our own bedrooms, working on our computers all day. Sometimes we have dinner together but because we’ve been stuck in these four walls so much, we just want to get outside for a walk, or to do some exercise - and that’s often alone.”

Humans are innately social creatures. We thrive on contact and touch, of being part of a group and negotiating relationships. How excruciating have we found it not to be able to hug our loved ones, and to bear the frustration of standing constantly at arms’ length? Numerous studies have shown that being communal improves our mental health, self-confidence and stress levels. Without it, we can struggle to feel fully whole.

A recent report, conducted during April/May of this year by the Office for National Statistics, revealed that 31% of the population (equivalent of 7.4 million who said their mental wellbeing had been affected by lockdown) reported experiencing loneliness. The ONS now applies the label: the ‘Lockdown Lonely’.

Another study, conveyed by Science Direct, links intense feelings of loneliness to hypervigilance around fear and anxiety in daily life. Of course it makes sense that living through a pandemic can only exasperate negative emotions. And for so many of us, it’s harder to feel positive when the uncertainty of our future hangs in the balance.

Recently Facebook announced that half of its employees will work from home by 2030. But while this movement may be inevitable for corporate organisations, it still throws up a number of contentious issues. Mothers, especially of small children, struggle with drawing a line across the entangled mix of professional and personal. ‘During the school break, with none of the usual holiday clubs available, I found myself scheduling an executive meeting while loading the dishwasher, feeding the dog and mouthing at my eight-year-old daughter to keep the noise down,’ said one female marketing manager.

And it’s often the younger workers, affected by the lack of essential social interaction, who claim they are missing out on so much. Not only do they yearn for the casual conversations at the water cooler with colleagues, they are being impacted by the loss of navigating everyday situations, the building of lasting rapport with others, and the skill set to deal with all manner of relationships – positive and negative. Kendal Parmar, CEO at Untapped, an online coaching platform, says, ‘People need to be with other people to work out their own, and others, feelings. It’s a basic human skill that helps us develop as individuals. Living through the lens of social connections establishes emotional intelligence. And that is important for your own self-confidence and your ongoing success in life. At Untapped, we are all about endorsing relationships, talking about what is working and not working so well, and feeling supported when you might believe you’re in it alone.’

Just last week, I ventured out to a restaurant with friends. It was a strange affair. The socially distanced tables, the preferred outdoor seating, my temperature check at the door, sanitiser on display everywhere, no lurking in the Ladies… There was one very disconcerting moment when I returned from the loo to see four waiters lined up, all wearing face masks. One of them had a flesh coloured mask on which made him look as through his entire features had been erased. It suddenly struck me how alienated I felt. Who were these people? What were they thinking? Were they smiling at me, or grimacing? I couldn’t tell. As masks literally become the fabric of our society, it will be so much more difficult to pick up on emotional prompts. A recent article in the Guardian’s Weekend section reported that ‘we process information best when we can see the whole face’, and ‘losing these cues will have an effect on our social interactions’. It is going to take a focused approach and heightened awareness to read, and relate to, people simply by their eyes.

In many ways, connection through conversations is going to become even more important. Not just to alleviate feelings of isolation, but to build deeper and lasting bonds with people during this time of physical distancing and exclusion. If we can keep our link with others enforced, then we will feel the strength of their presence, and benefit from the unique and essential tie to humanity it provides. When all else in the world is askew, we can still find solace in significant relationships. They may take a little more work to establish in this strange life we are living. But, boy, are they worth it.

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