Social connection is vital for our mental and physical health, but as Loneliness Awareness Week begins today, new research from the Office for National Statistics, suggests that 7.4 million people have suffered from “lockdown loneliness”.
The survey of 5,260 people, conducted between April 3 and May, found that those who were young, single, living alone or divorced were most likely to be affected. Chronic loneliness was also measured, with 5 per cent of people saying they “often or always” feel lonely.
Lonely people were more likely to have noticed a dip in their mental and physical wellbeing, while also reporting greater levels of boredom, stress and anxiety.
It is far from the first research to highlight the dangers of social isolation, but as the pandemic drags on, many experts worry that social distancing may be exacerbating an already significant national problem.
“Human connection is absolutely essential. I would put it up there with system is built around functioning best in healthy relationships,” says Dr Amy Banks, author of Wired to Connect (Tarcher Penguin).
Loneliness can increase your risk of dying prematurely by 30 per cent, making it as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more dangerous than obesity, according to research published by US psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University. Social isolation has also been linked with inflammation, heart disease and dementia.
Neurologically, healthy relationships get coded into our brains and body, says Dr Banks and one key component, which is highly pertinent at the moment, is the smart vagus nerve – part of the autonomic nervous system.
“When we feel safe, there is an opening in our face, we smile, we raise our eyebrows, we listen more attentively, there’s engagement and when that happens you get a big burst of smart vagus activity, which leads back to the sympathetic nervous system or your stress response system,” says Dr Banks. “And it basically says, ‘calm down’. So there is literally wiring in human beings that allows them to feel calmer and less stressed out when they are in safe human connection and what this represents is the interface between our nervous system and our immune system.”
Without human contact, we are far more likely to get sick and heal more slowly. “There is a very interesting study showing that when people cut their hand, it will heal faster if they are in contact with someone who cares about them,” says Dr Banks. So we need social connection now more than ever.
As lockdown eases, people are socialising more, though at a distance. But for those who are vulnerable and continuing to self-isolate, can video calling apps like Zoom and FaceTime fill the gap in their social life? “It’s nice to see someone on screen, a picture of person you know and it’s marvellous to hear their voice, but it’s just not as powerful as actual proximity which is tapping into the amygdala, our emotional centre,” explains clinical psychologist and Telegraph columnist Linda Blair.
“We are missing scent and we are missing touch. Those basic primitive senses that tell us we are with someone who is on our side. Why? If you think about it how do babies recognise their mother? They recognise the smell of her milk and they sense her touch. As we get oxytocin, the cortisol goes down and our endorphins go up. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing and we are missing that.”
A video call is certainly better than nothing. “Actually I think Zoom and FaceTime have been life saving for some, because you do at least get to see the person and that has genuinely been a good thing,” says Dr Banks. Simply driving by a good friend’s house and waving from the car, as one of Dr Banks’s close friends did one month into lockdown, could help you feel calmer. “You’re triggering the memory of a safe relationship, and because we have such a close relationship that really gave her a lift.”
If you’re bored and lonely, there are also a huge number of stimulating interactive clubs that have sprung up.
“For the first two months of lockdown my partner and I were apart,” says Alexa Thomas. “I was with my kids but I was missing grown-up conversation and then I discovered this brilliant initiative called Salon Sessions, which is based on the idea of a 17th-century salon, where you can meet new people and have a great chat about a topic, one week it will be, ‘What can we learn from Trump?’ and the next it might be: ‘Why do we fear failing?’ I’ve also joined an Instagram film club hosted by the band Bastille, called Distraction Tactics Film Club. So I’ll watch the film with one of my friends on Netflix Party. Then you get to ‘discuss’ it with the director, or writer the following week.”
Dr Banks says she is not so much concerned about the physical distancing we’re experiencing, but the way that we are enacting it. She worries that people are becoming isolated behind their masks, which block out social signals.
“This pandemic has paired the idea that being in contact with people is dangerous and our bodies are becoming encoded with that,” she explains. A better way to think of the social-distancing measures would be as “physical distancing, with social contact”, she says and now, more than ever, we should go out of our way to make eye contact, wave, or say “hello” loudly from behind our masks.
“The sound of a friendly voice and seeing the eyebrows of another person raise stimulates your social engagement system, which in turn sends a signal to your stress response system to calm down. Those moments of interaction may make the difference in the long run as to how we, as a society, survive the pandemic.”
But loneliness isn’t simply about being alone, it’s about how connected you feel. In this regard, Dr Banks says we should all be checking in on our friends and neighbours more and, in doing so, we too will benefit.
“Whenever I go to the supermarket I check in with my upstairs neighbour, who is still self-isolating,” says Mary Waters. “She generally says she doesn’t need anything, but I try to bring her small bunch of flowers and leave them outside her door. It’s not much, just a little thing to show I’m thinking about her and it makes me feel great.”
When you reach out to others you’ll benefit from a big dopamine hit and engage the physiology that supports the immune system, explains Dr Banks. “When we get lonelier we get stressed and become more myopic and focus on ourselves and how bad we feel.”
Banks cites the example of her sister who is a teacher and has since started meeting her teaching buddies every Friday after classes. “They had a tradition of meeting at the pub, so they’ve created their own pub on Zoom,” says Banks.
And if you are feeling bored or lonely yourself be clear about why you’re getting in touch. “You can say: ‘I’m going crazy, can we talk for 10 minutes’. Or ‘I can’t stand another day of this. Can we set up a call?’ Don’t be ashamed to reach out.”