No single state lasts forever. How will you react when things change and you feel threatened? People are creatures of habit, and in 2020 a form of coronavirus has unexpectedly risen to rapidly infect over 300,000 humans while disturbing our daily routines on a global scale. We are geared towards survival, and things that appear to threaten our survival often disturb us.
Our reaction to the virus may demonstrate our desire for predictability more than our frustrations with widespread death and disease. A person often seems less disturbed when that person thinks a disease has the potential to hurt many others. A person seems more disturbed when a disease has the potential to hurt that person or people who feel closer to that person. The speed and urgency with which this virus is spreading is another factor that produces a sense of dread.
If you want to explore this further, take some time to compare the statistics on coronavirus with the statistics on other causes of death such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer disease and other dementias, unintentional injuries (e.g. road accidents), and suicide (Center for Disease Control, 2020; CDC, 2017). The reproduction rate of coronavirus is disturbing, but other infectious diseases such as diarrhoeal diseases, influenza and pneumonia, HIV, tuberculosis, and mosquito-borne illnesses have killed many, many more people while remaining commonplace (World Health Organization, 2019). It may be that commonplace feeling combined with the privileges of age-group, socioeconomic status, and environmental advantages (e.g. geographic location, economic & technological development, community immunity, etc.) that allow our fears to be stilled in the midst of these other pervasive problems.
Diet, exercise, sleep, and social health habits impact our lives over long periods of time. A motor vehicle accident (MVA) or suicide only requires a few mistakes or a moment of ignorance. These problems can seem more insidious : “developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent” (e.g. heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, etc.) or “awaiting a chance to entrap” (e.g. unintentional accidents such as MVA’s, intentional self-harm, etc.) (Mish et al., 2014).
While it is important to realize that everything develops over time (e.g. even MVA and self-harm risk factors can be identified and addressed), these more insidious causes of death may be less disturbing to us due to their familiarity, slow onset, and rapid culmination. Atherosclerosis (“artery hardening” “…marked by cholesterol-lipid-calcium deposits in the walls of arteries that may restrict blood flow”), accumulation of radiation exposure (e.g. tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, etc.), chronic sleep deprivation, social isolation, and obesity can all take years or decades to accumulate/develop before resulting in dramatic lifestyle changes over the course of a few months (Chabner, 2015; Venes et al., 2005). Feeling lonely is only a small aspect of one factor of many, many variables that accumulate to influence our health over time.
Coronavirus has spread at an unprecedented rate, and this fact alone is enough to awaken our instinctual fears. This is the time to be listening to local authorities and adhering to recommended precautions, not gathering together in groups. Cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, and the longer people ignore social distancing and travel restrictions, the worse this pandemic is likely to be. We need to take this seriously while still caring for each other. See the World Health Organization’s updates on COVID-19, and adhere to their and the Center for Disease Control’s advice concerning this coronavirus (World Health Organization, 2019-2020; CDC, 2020). My goal with this post is to highlight a little of what I have been learning about another problem (loneliness) that could be exacerbated by the quarantine-like measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Loneliness is a common human condition to experience, especially in response to perceived threats (e.g. isolation and coronavirus). Lonely is commonly defined in many ways: “being without company” (i.e. lone), “cut off from others” (i.e. solitary), “not frequented by human beings” (i.e. desolate), “sad from being alone” (i.e. lonesome), and “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation” (i.e. loneliness) (Mish et al., 2014). The last two definitions more closely resemble the way John Cacioppo portrayed loneliness in his 2008 book, Loneliness, co-authored by William Patrick.
When we have feelings of loneliness (i.e. “the anxious, depressed, or dysphoric mood that occurs as a result of physical or psychic isolation”), we need to react to them in a healthy way to prevent those feelings from accumulating over time (Venes et al., 2005). John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe loneliness as “…a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds.” By comparing loneliness to hunger or thirst, Cacioppo is suggesting the feeling is an “…alarm signal…” that “…serves a survival function…”. The authors state, “…chronic feelings of isolation can drive a cascade of physiological events that actually accelerates the aging process.” Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) go on to describe the health implications of loneliness in detail, but the most functional takeaway from the book may be how Cacioppo encourages us to respond to loneliness.
“Whereas kind and generous behavior leads to social acceptance and the healthful feeling of connection, selfish antisocial behavior leads to physical decline and the disruptive pain of social isolation.” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009).
The authors are encouraging their readers to engage and invest in their communities in a healthy way. Instead of fearing society, we are encouraged to move towards others with whom we can establish mutually encouraging relationships that foster more kind, deep, and meaningful connections. I came to similar but much simpler and more rudimentary conclusion when I wrote a reflection on loneliness a year or two ago. We are all original and unique people, and the answers we find in life often look at least slightly different. My answers for loneliness often come from the values and people I have encountered throughout my past. You will need to find your own way to healthily respond to loneliness, but in this time of increased physical isolation here are a few suggestions to remain socially engaged…
- Call or video chat with a kind friend/family member with whom you have a deep, mutually-encouraging relationship
- Call someone who you want to encourage while expecting to be content regardless of how your encouragement is received (e.g. your friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives)
- Write some thank you notes or emails
- Volunteer your time or resources to safely support others during this time
- Hold virtual gatherings around meals or other events (e.g. a movie, a birthday, a spiritual or religious gathering, a book study, etc.)
- Educate yourself about things that other people are going through or feeling during this time and how you can be helpful to them
- Practice your artistic talents (e.g. music, crafts, sports, etc.) and practical skills (e.g. cooking, coding, handiwork, etc.) with the goal of being better able to use those skills to personally care for others in the future (e.g. I’m coping with my subjective feelings, expanding my knowledge, and reaching out to others through writing this blog post)
- If your area is allowing person-to-person interactions in public spaces (the fewer the better at this point), casually screen you friend(s) for recent symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath) and meet in locations where social distancing (i.e. maintaining a distance of 6 feet at all times) is fairly easy (e.g. going for a walk in a local park or trail)
If you are curious about the potential consequences and severity of loneliness, talk to your doctor and/or ask for a referral for counseling or behavioral health. You can also consider taking the UCLA Loneliness Scale and reading Loneliness by Cacioppo and Patrick. The book ends with practical ways to “EASE Your Way to Social Connection” (Extend yourself, Action plan, Selection, Expect the best) (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009). If you want to know the details of and reasons for those strategies, you’ll have to read the book.
“The best ideas are those that benefit the individual, the family, the tribe, and ultimately the species.” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009)
If there is something good that is coming out of this pandemic, it is the undeniable interconnectedness of our species and of life on earth. In spite of our best efforts, we cannot yet escape each other. Each of our actions influences this little island paradise and the life upon it in some minuscule or small way. Only those who can decipher the butterfly effect will know the extent of the impact of those actions. We are lucky, blessed, and privileged to be living out our unique life-journeys on this oasis of a planet. If we draw larger and larger circles around ourselves while gladly holding ourselves accountable to our individual and social responsibilities, we will come out of this stronger together.
“…the hallmark of a successful, long-lived civilization may be the ability to achieve a lasting peace among the several brain components.” – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden
“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” – Viktor E. Frankl as quoted by William J. Winslade in the Afterward to Man’s Search for Meaning
“Any ideology that needs to attack the thing that least threatens it is an ideology that will not outlive its own generation. Inclusion not exclusion, gentlemen, is the key to survival.” – St. John, fictional character, The Power of One (1992)
Cacioppo, J. T. & Patrick, W. (2009). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
CDC (2020, March 13). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html
CDC (2017, May 3). FastStats – Deaths and Mortality. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm
Center for Disease Control (2020, March 19). World Map. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/world-map.html
Chabner, D.-E. (2015). Medical terminology: a short course (6th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Inc.
Mish, Frederick C., et al. (2014). The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
Venes, D., M.D. et al. (2005). Tabers cyclopedic medical dictionary (21st ed.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.
World Health Organization (2019, May 6). Top 10 causes of death. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/causes_death/top_10/en/
World Health Organization (2019-2020). Novel Coronavirus situation reports. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports