Are you lonelier than you think you are?

“I miss my colleagues,” my friend tells me. “My husband puts on a good show,

“I miss my colleagues,” my friend tells me. “My husband puts on a good show, but I know he’s not really interested in my work dramas. Plus, there’s nobody to make in-jokes with or comment on my new shoes.”

“I am desperate to meet my best friend and put the world to rights over a Pizza Express margherita,” says another. “It’s not the same trying to talk on the phone with dinner to make and the kids wanting help with homework.”

Like me, many of my circle are feeling the bite of prolonged social isolation. It doesn’t matter that we have back-to-back Zoom calls with work, or the company of other halves or children, nothing seems to have replaced the joy of being in crowded places with the people we like. 

With Lockdown 2 looming, psychologists are warning of the hidden costs of isolation during the pandemic. In a letter signed by more than 2,000 psychology professionals, the organisation Psychology Counts says: “Social connection and human touch are essential for psychological stability, wellbeing, child development and thriving… limiting contact, both in relation to our loved ones and in public spaces, sets a context for fraying the social fabric and has devastating psychological consequences”.

Too dramatic? Certainly, for many of us, being increasingly physically isolated from friends, family and colleagues, has meant that our primal hunger for connection has never felt as raw. 

A study conducted during the spring lockdown found almost a third of us admitted to feeling lonely. But while divorced and single people were particularly vulnerable, the loneliness epidemic is not confined to those who live alone. Women, those under 30, retired people, and city dwellers were at increased risk. 

When the last lockdown started, many of us put a brave face on things. Instead of hugs, we embraced technology. We had cocktail party Zooms with friends, virtual family quizzes, book clubs and birthday parties. We FaceTimed grandparents or adult children. We even watched friends get married via our laptops. 

And for those of us who lived with partners and families, admitting to loneliness seemed self-indulgent at best, insulting at worst. How could we be lonely when we weren’t alone? 

But, perhaps surprisingly, studies have repeatedly found that social starvation, even if we don’t feel lonely, can have as serious an effect on our health as obesity, lack of exercise and high blood pressure. 

A Canadian study, published last week in the Journal of Hypertension, found that women in midlife and beyond who were unable to socialise and lacked social ties were much more likely to suffer from high blood pressure. On the other hand, a study published last week found that older people who socialise, volunteer, go to the cinema or attend classes with others have healthier brains. “Among older adults, social isolation is the largest known risk factor for mortality, equal only to smoking,” said principal investigator Annalijn Conklin.

In women from the age of 45, being single, having fewer than three social activities a month or fewer than 85 contacts in their social network all raised the risk of hypertension as much as being overweight. But for single women in particular, having regular social activities was particularly protective.

The pandemic is unique in that social starvation has been imposed upon us. We are isolated from colleagues, forbidden to mix meaningfully with friends and family, and unable even to enjoy the casual pleasure of being in busy, buzzy places. Even an unmasked smile from a stranger is a lost joy.

Do we restart those Zoom quizzes then? Perhaps, but tech solutions are an imperfect substitute for human contact. During lockdown, researchers looked at whether video calls could reduce loneliness. Their verdict? “The evidence regarding the effectiveness of video calls… was very uncertain.”

Another study from 2011 concluded: “Internet communication cannot predict quality of life while face-to-face communication with friends and family members can.”

This makes sense. Anthropologists believe that humans have lived in mixed-sex groups, rather than as isolated couples or families, for more than 50 million years. Only this week, a study found that mammals have been social creatures for almost 76 million years, even during the dinosaur era. “It is really powerful, I think, to see just how deeply rooted social interactions are in mammals,” Luke Weaver, from the University of Washington and a co-author of the study, said.

In stark comparison, we have only lived with the internet in our homes since the Nineties. 

Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in London, says: “Humans are essentially social beings and we function better when we have the opportunity to interact with each other in the flesh. Social isolation can contribute not only to depression and cognitive decline, but also significant physical ill health and reduction in life expectancy.” 

Dr Bijlani is also sceptical about the value of social media friendships alone.  “The more followers one acquires on social media, the more remote your actual, meaningful connection with others seems to become,” she says. 

Increasingly, friends say they have cut back on using Zoom and other technology for socialising. “Zoom calls sap my soul,” says one former social butterfly. “I stopped about week four [of the last lockdown]. It just reminds me of the life we’ve lost,” remarked another.

The worst of it is, this insidious loneliness can alter us in profound ways. A review found that isolated people start to dwell on unhappy social interactions more than on pleasant ones. In brain imaging studies, they show less activity in brain areas involved in predicting what people are thinking. This, researchers surmised, was because they became so worried that others didn’t like them, they subconsciously decided it was best not to know. The authors called this “social self-preservation mode”. The result? A vicious circle in which the lonelier people felt, the more they withdrew socially. They become negative and inflexible, making them less fun to be with, which compounds the effect.

The solution to social starvation? “Whenever you can, make an effort to meet people outdoors socially in a Covid-safe way,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, who also works at The Priory. “Shake up your day and prioritise your emotional wellbeing.”

Any trip to a park these days will reveal that increasingly more of us are finding new ways to seek out opportunities to socialise safely, despite the worsening weather. 

For me, walking my ridiculously cute dachshund doesn’t just mean exercise but socialising too. Sometimes I go with my husband, one of my teens or a friend, but even cheerful chit-chat with random dog-walking strangers lifts my mood for the rest of the day. A final trip to my last surviving local cinema felt like a party, despite there being only five other people in the auditorium. Previously un-sporty friends have formed running groups. “We get a takeaway coffee afterwards and talk and it’s saving my life right now,” says one. Groups like these are about to be furloughed temporarily, but running with a friend is still permitted. 

A friend who took a blanket and hot water bottle to meet a pal in the pub is considering taking a flask and meeting friends one by one in the park. And, perhaps most imaginatively, a beekeeper has taken to a daily, leisurely check on her hives with a fellow apiarist. “Not only do we get to socialise,” she says. “There’s the benefit that we are already wearing full hazmat suits.”

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