As the days pass by and people are adjusting to enforced social distancing in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, mental health providers, used to dealing with isolation and loneliness issues, are faced with an unfamiliar social and psychological situation: the effects of social isolation and loneliness in uncertain times. While the emphasis is on how to deal with the multiple challenges during the Covid-19 crisis such as to health, employment, home quarantine, and access to resources, what is becoming clear is that the long term effects of lack of human connection and loneliness require our attention as well.
It is important to point out that more people are living alone than ever before in human history. This trend became noticeable in the early 20th century, among industrialized nations. This trend accelerated in the 1960s. In the USA, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half-century. In 2019, 28th % of the household was a single-peson-up from 23% in 1980. But, there is a difference between living alone and loneliness. As the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to socially distance, people have begun to feel lonely. They miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends. Life has become slower and dull, more like survival than living.
Loneliness is not just a feeling. It is a biological warning signal to seek out human connection, much as hunger is a signal that leads a person to seek out food, or thirst is a signal to look for water. Historically, connections have been essential for survival. During the Coronavirus threat, the loneliness signal may increase for many individuals with limited ways of alleviating it. The stress is compounded because people do not have the usual outlets, like meeting with other people and human touch. The power of touch releases oxytocin, which is a natural cuddle hormone. You see it during mother-infant bonding and hugs. Under the current coronavirus conditions, people will be oxytocin starved. The studies show that the health consequences of prolonged loneliness, include trauma and clinical depression. During times like this, people need to be aware of the psychological risks of prolonged lack of human interaction. Families are also susceptible to increased stress, anxiety, and hopelessness and helplessness.