by Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD
We’re definitely in uncharted territory as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis in Canada and around the world. Most of us have never known war or a pandemic in our lifetime. How are you holding up?
Hopefully, well. But it’s hard. We’ve become accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it, or quickly enough, with the advent of technology and Amazon-like convenience.
But how socially connected were we, in our lives and as a society, before we were forced into maintaining our social connections at a physical distance?
At one time in Western medicine, our level of emotional connection with ourselves and with those closest to us, was believed to be an irrelevant factor, one that didn’t contribute to health or disease. Current data shows a different story; loneliness is now considered an epidemic.
An epidemic of loneliness
A survey in 2018 by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Economist found that one in five Americans (22%) said they “always or often feel lonely or socially isolated, frequently with serious consequences.” But loneliness is a global phenomenon with similar results reported in Britain, Japan, the European Union, and Canada.
Twenty-three percent of Canadians surveyed by the Angus Reid Institute in 2019 described themselves as desolate, and 10% said they were lonely but not isolated. Six in 10 Canadians (62%) wished their families and friends would spend more time with them.
Loneliness is emotionally painful, but researchers at the University of Florida found that loneliness also triggers an immune reaction known as flight or fight.
Lonely people’s white blood cells appear to increase inflammation, which is an immune response to wounding and bacterial infections.
Wired for connection
In his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007), Daniel Goleman explores how the latest findings in biology and neuroscience confirm that we are hard wired for connection and that our relationships shape our biology as well as our experiences.
He describes how even the most routine encounters, such as buying groceries or seeing co-workers in the office, act as regulators in the brain to prime our emotions — some positive, some negative. It is this experience of social relationship that contributes to the level of connection we have with our self and others.
A lack of social connection can be detrimental to our health. And our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection that much more real and dangerous.
But what does connection mean? According to research professor and author Brené Brown, connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. Connection is found in the giving and receiving of love.
Can we be emotionally connected via our computers and our phones? Consider this: have you ever read an email or text and instantly felt a powerful visceral emotion? Joy, sadness, rage, or fury?
If we have the courage to experience and share our true feelings, whether in the written word or face to face, we can experience social connection and yet be physically distanced.
Creating creative social connections
With innovation and creativity, we can nurture our social connections in this time of physical distancing. Why didn’t we think of virtual cocktail hour or virtual dinners before COVID-19? Perhaps some people did, but not me.
Some days feel oddly carefree living with COVID-19 distancing. I don’t have to rush out, and I have spontaneous time to read, finish a project, or reflect. Other days I feel vulnerable and scared, worried for family and friends, for colleagues, even for my own family and myself — could one of us be an outlier? An otherwise healthy young person who contracts COVID-19 and becomes very ill?
This is my cue to practice deep breathing or box breathing, reach out to a close friend or loved one and share my fears, or practice gratitude for all the good things I have.
What can we do?
We can control our thoughts. We can remember to be a carrier of hope. We can burst out with love — on our balconies, in our homes, over live video chats.
Where others hoard, we can offer help. Where others are overwhelmed or uncaring, we can be kind and respectful. Whatever we are feeling, whether joy or fear, we can lead with openness and not push our emotions away.
Now is the time to be united in our shared humanity. Maybe this crisis is asking us to seek and maintain connection before we become isolated and lonely.
I’m grateful that every day during this period of social isolation, the days are growing longer by many minutes a day.
I’m grateful that we have modern technology, smartphones, and the internet.
Can you imagine what this would be like without those tools? Used with courage and openness, they can harness social connection, foster our health, and help mitigate loneliness.
And when times get tough and loneliness settles in? Remember my advice above, practice deep breathing, reach out to a close friend or loved one and share your feelings together, and practice gratitude for all the good things you still have.
Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD is board-certified with the Canadian College of Family Physicians (CCFP), She is a medical doctor and the founder of Vancouver Functional Medicine. She is also trained in naturopathic medicine.