We have to be alone…but don’t be lonely

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There are a few overwhelming messages we are hearing these days from the media, world leaders, and even many celebrities. We’ve all heard it a million times. Stay home, physically distance, stay healthy.

This message is critical. We are living in a time when there is a virus running rampant across the planet, and the only thing we can do to slow the spread is to stay away from each other and wash our hands.

However, this period of isolation and physical distancing is bringing another health crisis to the forefront, and it is something that is not often talked about. Loneliness.

I was recently listening to activist Jameela Jamil’s new I-Weigh podcast (which I highly recommend), and she interviewed a former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Dr. Murthy recently released a new book called Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, where he talks about loneliness as one of the United States major public health concerns. In the book, he writes that he believes many people are suffering in silence, and that loneliness is directly related to many physical and psychological concerns, including alcohol and drug addiction, violence, and depression and anxiety.

On the podcast, Dr. Murthy mentions that loneliness is a state of being, and not something that can be solved just by being around people. Many feel just as isolated when they are in a group than when they are alone at home. He mentioned that, growing up, he often felt a deep sense of loneliness, because he felt different from his peers at school due to his innate shyness and Indian background. Even when he was surrounded by other children on the playground, he felt lonely and this led to a lot of social anxiety and sadness.

As we move towards a society that is more open about talking about mental health, Dr. Murthy argues that loneliness is still taboo. As he was travelling around the United States as the Surgeon General, he noticed that, although people would talk to him about their physical ailments, underneath there was often this pervasive sense of loneliness. When he started to bring it up specifically, people were able to connect with him and share how they felt loneliness was affecting them and their loved ones.

Through his research, Dr. Murthy has highlighted what an important part human connection plays in our overall health and wellbeing. As humans, we have an innate desire to connect and, when that isn’t met, we can develop all sorts of mental and physical issues that can be hard to address. This is extremely relevant in today’s world, as we are having to physically distance ourselves from others. Giving a friendly handshake, or receiving a hug from a loved one, cannot be part of our reality right now, and this can create a deep sense of loneliness for those who depend on this human contact to forge connection. This is especially true for those who are having to self-isolate alone. Even the most introverted people still need to feel loved and connected, but our current restraints make that need hard to fulfill.

In his book, Dr. Murthy highlights several ways that can help combat loneliness, even in this period of isolation. Firstly, spending at least 15 minutes a day with those you love, either over Skype, Zoom, or a phone call, can decrease your feelings of loneliness drastically. When you are connecting with your loved ones, give them your undivided attention. It is hard to make a true human connection when you are doing other things like checking email or texts on your phone. Make eye contact, genuinely listen, and give your friend or family member the gift of your full attention when you are talking with them.

This may sound counterintuitive, but embracing solitude is another one of Dr. Murthy’s suggestions for combatting loneliness. He argues that the first step to making connection with others is to build a stronger connection with yourself. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and spending time outdoors can all be ways that you can find joy in solitude.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out. Help, and be helped. Dr. Murthy sees service as a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. This can easily be fulfilled by checking in on your neighbour, seeking advice, or even offering a smile to someone from a social distance. All of these forms of connection can make us stronger and feel less isolated and alone.

We are lucky to be living in an age where the internet can facilitate connection while staying home. This period of isolation is really showing us how much we do need connection and is forcing us to be creative about how we fill that need. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having long phone conversations with my grandmother in Toronto, and even attended a virtual house party with some friends in Ottawa. I definitely wasn’t doing that before the pandemic and physical distancing regulations came into effect.

We are living in a strange world; but, if we leverage the tools we have and the knowledge of forward-thinking professionals like Dr. Murthy, there is no reason we can’t emerge from this stronger and more connected than ever.

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