Loneliness and Reconnecting After the Pandemic
There were many changes to how we lived during the pandemic but the one that so many people found the most difficult were the restrictions around social connection. So much so that we found many novel and different ways to stay connected during that time. But now the restrictions have lifted, and we can all meet up again, are we actually doing it?
Many people we speak to at Inspired To Change are telling us they are finding it difficult reconnecting after the pandemic, a sense of apathy has crept in around making plans and people finding they have to talk themselves in to going out.
But we are a social species who thrive on being together so why are so many of us finding it hard to reconnect?
Why is it so important for us to reconnect after the pandemic and how detrimental is it to our health when we feel a sense of loneliness?
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is not the same as social isolation or being alone. People can be socially isolated yet not feel lonely. Alternatively, people can be surrounded by other people, yet still feel lonely.
The charity Age UK defines loneliness as:
“Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships.”
So, it’s not just about having people in our life, it’s about feeling connected and having meaningful, satisfying relationships.
But loneliness isn’t a new phenomena created by the pandemic. Millions of people in the UK struggle with loneliness each year. Time and again research has shown how damaging loneliness can be to our mental health and wellbeing. But did you know that it can also affect our physical health as well?
One research study found that loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, shortening our life by up to 15 years.
The Mental Health Foundation also tracked loneliness levels in the UK during the Covid 19 pandemic and it was found to be an important factor contributing to higher levels of distress.
What’s happening from a brain science perspective?
Here at Inspired To Change, we always take the time to explain what’s happening in our brain to our clients, in particular the role of our feel good hormones play in our mental health and wellbeing. One of these key feel good hormones is Oxytocin.
Oxytocin often called the “love” or “hug” hormone because it’s the chemical that helps us to connect and feel loved. It plays an important role in regulating our social interactions, enabling us to instigate, build and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships giving us that warm fuzzy feeling inside.
As well as feeling loved, it also plays a role in generating feelings of empathy, intimacy and trust. Particularly important between spouses or parent and child (no matter how old your child is!) It also plays an important role in our friendships and even our relationships with our pets.
Most types of social connection naturally increase the level of oxytocin in our brain, which is why when we hug a loved one (or a pet!), we get an oxytocin hit which makes us feel good (that warm fuzzy feeling again!).
When we are unable to engage in meaningful or satisfying social connections our oxytocin level can drop and when we’re lacking in oxytocin feelings of loneliness can start to creep in, enhancing feelings fear and distrust, leading to self-isolating behaviours. On a long-term basis this can lead to problems with our mental health (such as anxiety and depression), the development of unhelpful coping strategies and decreased life expectancy.
We are a social species for a reason!
Another reason why loneliness can be so damaging to our mental health is because our brain sees loneliness as a potential threat and increases our stress hormone (cortisol) to help us to deal with this threat. Being social is an evolutionary driver. If we think back to the days of early humans, we weren’t particularly fast or strong compared to other animals, so we needed the support of our tribe to survive. Extra hands for hunting and gathering, extra support in raising children and extra protection from predators.
So, when we feel lonely our primitive brain perceives that as a threat to our survival – if we aren’t surrounded by our tribe to keep us safe then our life might be in danger.
In contradiction to this, during the covid pandemic we were literally instructed to self-isolate and minimise contact with our friends and family to keep both us and our loved ones safe. We began to consistently associate isolating and staying at home with being safe and protecting those we care about.
It’s perhaps not surprising that after over 2 years of hearing the message isolation keeps us safe that many of us feel a reluctance or apathy about re-connecting or starting to socialise again, yet at the same time struggle with the feelings of loneliness that come as a result.
What can you do to boost your oxytocin?
To start to combat feeling of loneliness, we need to boost the level of oxytocin in our brain. Something that often feels easier said than done and that’s because when our oxytocin is low, we won’t feel like socialising. We won’t feel like socialising until we socialise and get a little a hit of oxytocin as a reward. In effect, when oxytocin is low, your brain is starting from cold, so we must put in extra conscious effort, focusing on the desired positive outcome (that sense of connection) to encourage us to take the very first small step.
Our top tips for reconnecting after the pandemic…
Reminiscing about the last time you saw a special friend, recalling the details about where you were, what you did and what was so good about the time you spent together can be really helpful. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination, so the memory alone will produce a hit of oxytocin, making you feel good in that moment, as well as giving you the very thing you need to encourage you to reach out and make contact.
2. Set a positive intention
By setting a positive intention to connect with others it helps our brain to see the opportunities more. If we set an intention to connect with one friend every week, for example, we are more likely to say yes when a friend asks to meet up, or even be the ones reaching out to make those connections ourselves.
3. Plan what you’d like to do
Our brain loves a plan! It provides it with some of the certainty we’ve been missing out on over the last 2 years. But it’s important to make sure the plan is realistic too!
4. Start small
Starting with small actions like picking up the phone or sending a message is a great way to get started as these are also small positive interactions, boosting our oxytocin and encouraging us towards more positive interactions and connections.
5. Help others reconnect
Popping round to see your neighbour or checking in with a colleague who is working from home not only boosts your oxytocin but theirs too. And if they are struggling to reconnect, your message or call could be just the thing to help them reach out more!
If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness and you’d like to find out more about how hypnotherapy can help you to reconnect and boost your feel good hormones, get in touch with one of our therapists to book in your free initial consultation today!
About the Author: Kerry Seymour is based in our North Somerset clinic in Weston-super-Mare and she works with clients online both across the South West and around the UK. Kerry specialises in helping people with Anxiety, OCD , Low Confidence, Chronic Pain and Parental Mental Health and Resilience.
If you’d like to find out how solution focused hypnotherapy could help you to reduce anxiety, cope with stress and maintain your brain, why not get in touch to book your FREE initial consultation with your local Inspired to Change hypnotherapist? Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are based across the UK in Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Essex, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
Inspired to Change Hypnotherapists are all recognised by the National Council for Hypnotherapy, the UK’s leading not-for-profit hypnotherapy professional association.
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