I just finished reading “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” by Vivek H. Murthy, who is the current Surgeon General of the United States. It was a fascinating read, made even more interesting knowing that it went to press just as the pandemic started – so Dr. Murthy wrote about the medical impacts of loneliness before the world had to isolate from loved ones for months at a time. The research and the advice in this book are even more salient these days – two years into a pandemic where humanity’s social fabric has been shredded.
There is a lot worth discussing in this book, but one part that really sat with me and challenged my thinking is the following passage.
“The Paradox of Loneliness”
“If Loneliness is so bad for our health, it would make sense that we would do everything in our power to connect with other people at the first sign of social isolation. Often, that’s just what does happen. When the biological process works as designed, the anxiety we feel in the first flush of loneliness will motivate us to find “our people”: We’ll go home to Mom. Or hug our spouse. We’ll help a neighbor or call an old friend. If we’re able to find and connect with people we trust, and if they’re responsive and genuinely understanding, the loneliness will subside and our stress state will recede. This is how most of us get through situational loneliness, such as the lost feeling that can descend when we move to a new town or start a new school or job.
But it’s not always easy to find or make those connections. When we become chronically lonely, most of us are inclined to withdraw, whether we mean to or not. John Cacioppo [professor of social psychology at the University of Chicago] determined that our threat perception changes when we’re lonely, so we push people away and see risk and threat in benign social opportunities. John’s widow, Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who was his close collaborator and has taken on the role of continuing and expanding his work on loneliness at the University of Chicago, found that lonely brains detect social threats twice as fast as non-lonely brains. This may seem like a paradoxical response to a mechanism that evolution designed to prevent isolation, but from an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense.
When our ancestors were separated from the safety of the group, they needed to react defensively even to marginal threats, since they might well turn out to be lethal. But in modern life that same hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats. Fleeing into self-preservation mode, we’ll avoid people and distrust even those who reach out to help us. With prolonged loneliness, we’ll decline invitations and stop answering the phone.
Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security, which can appear to others as self-involvement. These two elements – the threat perception shift and the increased focus on self – are key parts of the hypervigilance story that makes it difficult to engage with others when we’re lonely.
Then the reactions begin. Those who’d like to help start running away, leaving us feeling even more alone. Before long we’re trapped in a vicious cycle of suspicion, jealousy, and resentment. Loneliness thus fuels more loneliness until the fracture leads to severe alienation. Clearly, the solution is more complicated than telling someone who’s lonely to go to a party or “just be with people”. (emphasis mine)
As I digested this passage, I thought of the time earlier on in the pandemic – when we were all sheltering-in-place here in Santa Clara County for most of 2020. We were not allowed to see anyone outside of our immediate home unit. We were not allowed to drive outside of our county lines. Only essential businesses were open. At first the posts on my Facebook were encouraging – people coming together and saying we can flatten the curve if we all stay home. But gradually, as the loneliness settled into our brains, we became more antagonistic with one another. In our county at least, lines were drawn – if you wore a mask, you were a good person. If you didn’t wear a mask (or you didn’t wear it properly) you were the problem and the reason people were dying from covid (even if you didn’t have covid and therefore couldn’t possibly pass it on).
This period of time was pretty distressing to me because my four-year-old son would absolutely not wear a mask. I had many friends and other parents online tell me it was my parenting – I wasn’t modeling wearing a mask, I wasn’t choosing the right kind of mask, I wasn’t doing some magic parenting trick to get him to wear a mask. Because my son wouldn’t wear a mask, I had several friends who would not spend time with us even outdoors. We were not welcome at places like the fully-outdoor San Francisco zoo or our neighborhood playgrounds. We were told that my son was not welcome to pick up halloween candy from the end of a driveway if he wasn’t wearing a mask. A security guard came up to him in the outdoor library plaza and told him to put on a mask or we couldn’t pick up our books. We were told at a shoe store that we couldn’t buy shoes from them if he didn’t put a mask on.
I felt stared at and judged everywhere we went. My son began to internalize his struggles and his self-esteem plummeted as he became more socially excluded. Finally, I asked his pediatrician for an exemption letter and he wrote us one immediately. The psychological and social harm of long-term isolation and exclusion were costing us much more than the mask was possibly protecting us and others from covid-19. As we were able to socialize more, his hypervigilant state calmed down and he began wearing a mask.
Of course, all of this I experienced through my own lonely-brain lens. I was defensive and I pulled away from people who I perceived to be a social threat to us – I’ll call them “the mask police.” Even friends who were clear with me that they understood my son’s struggles and it was okay – I still perceived them as a social threat and I pulled away. It’s like I couldn’t get my brain to stop. I had a hard time trusting others and I felt bitter.
Meanwhile, the “mask police” were themselves also functioning in a “lonely brain state”. They saw my unmasked son as a threat to their safety and in response, they pulled away from me. To repeat Dr. Murthy’s quote above, “hypervigilance causes us to misread harmless or even welcoming people and situations as threats…Hypervigilance also creates an intense preoccupation with our own needs and security, which can appear to others as self-involvement”. We were all in our own states of hypervigilance – and we saw different things as threats to our health and safety. The more isolated and lonely we became, the more likely we were to jump to conclusions about someone and stick them in a box we labeled “bad people”.
This hypervigilance came up again when the vaccines came out. Our lonely brains saw unvaccinated folks as threats to our well-being, even when we were fully-vaccinated against the virus and thus, unlikely to die or even experience hospitalization. Rather than lovingly talking to our loved-ones about how worried we were about their health, our hypervigilant brains blamed them for our continued isolation and saw them as a threat to our survival, even once we had antibodies to the virus we feared. I regret many conversations I had with loved ones during this time as I tried (without success, I might add) to convince them of the benefits of vaccines by speaking unkindly and threatening to socially ostracize them. To anyone I hurt with unkind remarks or social pressure, I am truly sorry. Now that my brain is less lonely and I no longer feel like I am in a state of hypervigilance, I see your humanity. Being in a state of hypervigilance doesn’t excuse anyone’s bad behaviour, but at least I can now understand why my brain seemed to be so angry with people whom my heart loved.
Online social networks like Facebook did not help with the lonely-brain at all. Maybe Facebook made us feel more socially connected, but it was a facade. It was more of a social distraction than quality social time with others. It was also a great place for people to vent their frustrations about anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers out into the void without really considering the human face and individual struggles and stories behind people’s choices. My lonely-brain became even more lonely reading Facebook posts in the Sunnyvale Moms Group about how kids who aren’t masked should have to leave the playground. I was in a psychological tail-spin.
So what is the antidote to the lonely-brain phenomenon? Connection. Face to face connection. Conversation.
Something changed for me when I started using the app Marco Polo to connect with a few close girlfriends every day. Marco Polo allows you to send a private video message to friends. It’s like leaving a voicemail on someone’s phone, but it is a video. The only people who can see the video are the ones you sent it to. I could send videos sharing my life and my thoughts to one friend, or to a group chat of a few friends. As moms with busy schedules, it is hard to find time to connect with other moms on Facetime or in person – but Marco Polo helped us see into each others’ lives when we had to be apart. In time, my lonely brain felt better and even though it wasn’t in person or live, it was still better than text or the impersonal void of a Facebook newsfeed.
This past year, I’ve been trying to get my family back “out there” and to engage in community again. I believe it is vitally important to our mental and physical health. I started volunteering at the Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, I started attending Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, I signed my kids up for gymnastics, music class and boy scouts. We started having neighbourhood kids over to play at our house. My husband returned to work at the office. I started asking friends to go for early Saturday morning hikes with me. I gathered a group of moms together to celebrate our strength through this pandemic. All of these activities helped heal my lonely brain.
Though I will also admit, that one thing that surprised me, is how exhausting it was. Even though I believe socializing with others is vital to my mental health, I found myself unexpectedly wiped out by many of my social interactions.
I’ve heard from many others who say the same thing – before the pandemic they loved to socialize, they loved to host, to attend events. And while they still feel drawn to try these things again, the very activities that used to energize them now leave them feeling depleted.
What is up with that?
Could it be that we were all just closet introverts with highly trained extroversion muscles that have gotten weak over the last two years of the pandemic? Is socializing a muscle that can atrophy over time? Or could it be that we are all very empathetic people and we can easily feel the emotions of those around us? With everyone so tense in these gatherings (for a variety of reasons), perhaps we take on that tension and just feel exhausted at the end of it all?
I’m thinking it’s perhaps a combination of the two. I do feel the energy in a room as palpable as I can feel the carpet underneath my feet. Being around tense, nervous, anxious, and upset people leaves me feeling the same way. I also think perhaps all the efforts that come with socializing are muscular – and these muscles get stronger the more you socialize. My social muscles needed for groups larger than three people are weak and just like any other muscle, need to be exercised little by little.
What do you think? Can you look back at parts of your pandemic experience and say, “yes, I think I was pretty lonely then and maybe that’s why I said those hurtful things”? Is it easier to comprehend the dissension and friction in society these days when we look at it through a lens of loneliness? Can we forgive those who have hurt us these last few years by recognizing that they were an isolated, lonely human and in a state of hypervigilance? Can we see that their brains had been hijacked by an instinctive drive for survival? Something for us all to consider as we try to move forward beyond the pandemic.