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Alone and Lonely, Together Or, I Promise This Isn’t Entirely About Coronavirus

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Sociality (not socialism) is the degree to which an animal cooperates or associates with its own kind, and it is a product of survival, evolution, and biology. Some organisms, like many big cats, are barely social at all, only associating on date nights and then retreating back into the wild. On the other end of the spectrum, ants and many bees have a biologically-regimented sociality, where different castes have different responsibilities, generation after generation. The varied behaviors and biologies of these organisms have developed in accordance with their need for socializing: the mostly-solitary tiger needs a large area to hunt, so it keeps its distance from potential competition, i.e. other tigers. Ants, on the other hand, need other ants to accomplish much of anything, having evolved to work together almost exclusively.

Our ability to cooperate and communicate socially, facilitated by our language, has led humanity to the dominant position on the planet.

The human being (Homo quarantinus) falls somewhere in the middle, along with our primate cousins. We live in family-centered dwellings, we cooperate to survive, and we take care of our young after they drop out of community college. More than any other organism, our ability to cooperate and communicate socially, facilitated by our language, has led humanity to the dominant position on the planet: more than tools or even fire.

Transient vs. chronic loneliness

So it makes a great deal of sense that we are, just like the tiger and the ant, biologically predisposed to that basic human level of socializing, and that we suffer when deprived of that contact with others. Most people suffer from loneliness at some point in their lives, and for a variety of reasons: breakups, arguments, loss, grief, homesickness, and alienation are a few of the more common. These feelings usually pass with time, and the person is able to return to a normal human level of social activity. This kind of loneliness is referred to as transient loneliness.

For some, loneliness is a much more steadfast companion, even existing alongside what looks like a healthy relationship and social life. This kind of loneliness is considered chronic loneliness, and there’s plenty of research that indicates this can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health. Issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, strokes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and reduced memory and cognitive function have all been linked to chronic loneliness. The hormone responsible for happiness, dopamine, has a diminished effect on the chronically lonely, compounded further by links to depression and self-destructive behavior such as alcoholism and poor sleep patterns. Furthermore, a deficiency in vitamin D consumption has been linked to increased rates of loneliness and depression. Chronic loneliness is nothing to joke about: it has as significant an impact on human mortality as being a smoker, and is actually more dangerous statistically than obesity or a lack of exercise.

A deficiency in vitamin D consumption has been linked to increased rates of loneliness and depression.

Loneliness is furthermore divided into social loneliness, which is caused by a lack of a proper social network, and emotional loneliness, which stems from a lack of deep bonds with other humans. It is important to distinguish between these two needs and to remember that the absence of either can leave a person feeling lonely, even when surrounded by others. Being no longer a tribal species, we aren’t always among our social groups and families when we are in public, and merely walking past people is no substitute for meaningful contact and relationships.

As it happens, many of us have recently been dealing with unexpected amounts of loneliness, in one way or another. No, I couldn’t really get through this without bringing up our current state of isolation. And I probably shouldn’t let this particular elephant to remain camouflaged on this particular sofa. It’s hard to make new friends, hit the town, or even visit family when we are all locked inside our homes. Even recognizing people when we do peek outside is getting difficult these days, since everyone looks like they’re either on their way to perform surgery or rob a bank. Digital forms of communication work for some of us, and many folks are adjusting to going to meetings or classes online, but it’s a very surreal, almost science fiction-like state we’re living in, with no end yet in sight.

Loneliness vs. solitude

To be clear, loneliness and solitude are not necessarily the same thing. Many people enjoy time on their own, and intermittent or transient loneliness can be a positive force, encouraging and reinforcing our need for human relationships, improving concentration, and providing better perspective and clarity on life events. But like any behavior, what begins as a healthy retreat from the buzz and hubbub of humanity can spiral into harmful patterns when one fails to account for basic human needs. Prolonged solitude, especially when made compulsory in situations like solitary confinement or quarantine, can have terrible effects on humans and organisms, especially early in development, effects which will reinforce antisocial behavior and encourage chronic loneliness, depression, and other ailments.

Combatting loneliness

Therapy, including group therapy, can be useful for those suffering from both transient and chronic loneliness, as it not only imparts techniques and tools for managing negative emotions, but provides an opportunity for social activity via the therapist and other patients. The perception of isolation can often be broken by finding common ground with other lonely or depressed individuals. Since chronic loneliness often causes or exists in tandem with depression, antidepressant drugs can help with chemical imbalances and are useful in certain circumstances. For those less inclined towards pharmaceutical solutions, many alternative types of treatment are also recommended by doctors, including exercise, dieting, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and the use of herbs such as St. John’s Wort. Your health care professional should be consulted before looking into alternative treatments, but since state of mind and overall happiness play a substantial factor in mitigating loneliness, it’s important to find what works for you.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.