The feelings behind social distancing 


As the days turn colder, the nights draw in and yet further measures to protect us from this seemingly never-ending pandemic are batted back and forth between one politician and another, we might be finding ourselves somewhat stuck in the middle. And it may be that we are experiencing feelings we do not fully understand.   
Social distancing, self-isolating, shielding…these phrases are now so common in our everyday vocabulary, it may be that we have forgotten what they actually mean. Because for many of us, behind these short, succinct phrases, lies the reality of loneliness. 


The gap between what we need and what we feel

Loneliness occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired. It is the state of distress or discomfort that results when we perceive a gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it. For the vast majority of us, right now, the gap is growing day by day. And within the gap between what we know we need and what we feel we lack, lies familiar emotions of estrangement and isolation. 

The experience of loneliness is very personal: we can be on our own without necessarily feeling lonely, and we can feel lonely even when we are in a large crowd. Even if we are surrounded by others throughout the day (unlikely at present!), we can still experience a deep loneliness. The effects of loneliness are also a subjective concern. For some of us it is associated with depressive symptoms, sleep disturbance and elevated levels of stress hormones; whereas for others, feeling lonely can bring on physical health issues such as poor immune functioning, heart disease and arthritis.  


Managing our feelings of loneliness 

The simple truth is that many of us at present are feeling quite alone. This is not surprising when you consider the kind of year we are all having: working from home all day; not getting to see our colleagues in the flesh; debarred once more from seeing family members as well; locked out of pubs and restaurants by the new ‘Tiered’ restrictions; and ultimately finding that video conferencing software can never replace being with old friends. It’s quite a list. 

We may be flagging and feel that any attempt to manage our loneliness is completely out of our control and resides instead with politicians and policy makers. Which is further stressing us out. However, alongside our feelings of isolation, it is likely the majority of us at present will also be feeling a desire to connect and be part of something better. And by contrast we know building relationships can reduce the impact of stress on our emotional functioning and meet our basic psychological needs to relate.  


This undeniable sense of belonging 

Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler believed everyone is born with an innate need to belong and the skills to make this happen. He also believed that being unable to achieve this sense of belonging could lead to mental ill health. However, we do not have to regard Adler’s stance as a pessimistic one. We could instead view it as optimistic in that he is identifying something we are all feeling which is entirely correctable and curable. He believes we are born with the skills to connect and we just have to recover this toolkit and put it to use. As he says:  

“This sense of belonging that cannot be denied anyone, against which there are no arguments, can only be won by being involved, by cooperating, and experiencing, and by being useful to others. Out of this emerges a lasting, genuine feeling of worthiness.”   
(from The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology)


New normal = new expectations

We may believe that the current crisis does not allow us to connect with others. However, starting from where we are, maybe we can challenge our assumptions of what this actually means, and by doing so re-define what we mean by ‘loneliness’. Somewhat ironically it may be that the current crisis – with all its attendant restrictions on socialising – may in fact be the perfect time to practice Adler’s idea of ‘being involved’.  

If this is indeed the new normal as we are led to believe, it could also an opportunity to create new expectations of belonging. And maybe out first connection with others could be simply realising by the seemingly trivial act of wearing a face mask we are protecting that stranger in the supermarket. We have not spoken to him or her, we never will. In fact, we will never know them in any way at all. But we are thinking about them and their wellbeing: why else would we be wearing this piece of cloth over our nose and mouth?  


If you would like to find more advice and tips on how we can challenge our subjective notions of loneliness read on here.