In this strange covid-19 world, tens of millions of people around the world are currently in lockdown of some kind, allowed to leave the house only for essential shopping or exercise. Many are lucky enough to be living with their families, loved ones or friends, but for those who live alone, or whose relationship with their household is strained, loneliness is a very real result of social isolation.
Factor in that most people also feel anxious about the current situation and its uncertainties, worried about their health and their family’s health, and stressed about the financial impacts of covid-19 – and you have a truly toxic psychological cocktail for those who also find themselves feeling lonely and vulnerable.
Long-term loneliness has been shown, across hundreds of studies, to be linked to serious physical and mental health problems, including Alzheimer’s, depression, cardiovascular problems and autoimmune disorders. Of course, at some point lockdowns will ease and then end, and so it is to be hoped that for many people, their current level of loneliness is temporary.
Technology also makes this a less isolating experience than it would have been decades ago, with lovesd ones and friends now able to stay in touch by numerous digital means. Nonetheless, for those living the experience now, lockdown loneliness is very real.
Could help be at hand from something as simple as a smartphone app? Quite possibly. A new study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, reveals that participants who followed a 14-day mindfulness program on their smartphones subsequently reported feeling significantly less lonely.
During the study, participants were randomly assigned into one of three groups:
• one group followed lessons based around acceptance – a key tenet of mindfulness – and emotional monitoring
• one group used emotional monitoring alone
• the control group were taught an unrelated coping mechanism
Those who learned acceptance techniques not only reported feeling less lonely, but they also reported an increased number of actual social interactions during the day.
The precise mechanism by which mindfulness and acceptance work to reduce loneliness is not yet clear, but researchers hypothesise that through acceptance, participants felt a decrease in the ‘social threat’ of being lonely and were therefore better able to reconcile their emotions around the issue.
In evolutionary terms, social isolation and loneliness have been viewed as a threat, as being alone decreased the likelihood of survival.
However it appears that mindful acceptance of the feelings brought about by loneliness decreases some of the fear, enabling people to cope better or giving them the confidence to reach out more to others, thus reducing the loneliness.
For some people, the loneliness will not end when the lockdown does, and the world’s loneliness epidemic looks likely to continue to be a major problem.
Long after covid-19 becomes a memory, society will still need to discover ways to help people battle loneliness – more research into how something as simple as how mindfulness can help would be a very good start.
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