Lockdown may have ended months ago, but many of us are still experiencing a “new kind of loneliness”. A clinical psychologist explains how we can begin to navigate it.
Although there were people physically around me, I was isolated from my family and friends, with no routine and working a temporary job I was grateful for but didn’t enjoy; it felt like me against the big scary world.
And obviously, I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Many declared loneliness a pandemic of own. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in 14 people aged 16 or over in Great Britain say they’re lonely, accounting for over 3.4 million people.
But even long after the pubs have reopened, theatres have welcomed back audiences and our social calendars have started to fill back up, many of us are still hit with pangs of withdrawal.
Clinical psychologist Randi Gunther terms this a “new kind of loneliness,” a collective feeling of isolation that has come about since the pandemic and left so many of us experiencing a feeling we can’t quite give reason to.
Writing for Psychology Today, Gunther explains: “All people feel lonely when they experience isolation, friendlessness, and separation from loved ones. But even when they are forced to interact with only those they know well, they can also feel a different kind of loneliness and not understand why they feel that way.”
Even though we’ve regained the capacity to mix with others, Gunther notes that many of her patients have shared that they are still feeling a different kind of entrapment.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has had a huge impact on our relationships. “If there are fewer opportunities for expanded interaction with people outside of their intimate connections, even previously contented relationships can become bored with each other. They are more easily irritated, have less patience, and nitpick about issues that would rarely have upset them before,” writes Gunther.
This feeling can manifest in our romantic as well as platonic relationships, as external challenges and stimulations help us to create new conversations, ideas, and feelings, and and keep us interested in and interesting to one another.
And it even has an impact on the way we behave around people we don’t know. “Limited connection with others over a long period of time also creates more of a “them” and “us” mentality, causing less trust and openness to new experiences with outsiders. So many people now are hyper vigilant and cautious, not having had access to the changes that have happened to others during the same time,” Gunther suggests.
After spending so long in survival mode, it’s no wonder that it feels increasingly hard to coax ourselves out of that mindset, especially when the Covid-19 finish line appears to be ever-changing.
So how can we go about navigating this new type of loneliness, or is it something, much like the pandemic itself, that we’ll have to adapt to live with?
Navigating the world of reconnection is no easy feat, but it’s important to remember that so many of us are experiencing the same anxieties.
“The sense of feeling alienated and isolated is incredibly common now, as is disappointment or boredom with your partner or fear of others you might once have been eager to meet,” Gunther shares. “Your coping mechanisms may have resulted in dependence on others’ experiences via entertainment from the media or online interactions. You have become rusty in being able to banter or play, worrying too much about how others may judge you. And, of course, you may still be afraid of contracting the virus and suspicious of others who may be contagious.”
However, she suggests that starting to come to terms with the fact that what you thought would be a more limited time might be a longer stint is a healthy way to assess your feelings without letting them overwhelm you. Then, she advises, it’s important to take small steps to do the things that “make you feel alive again,” be it a solo date, new hobby or a small group gathering to push yourself out of your Covid comfort zone.
“Maintain your interesting and vital self in every way you can, so that when you are able to once again expand your horizons, you will not feel like you’re coming out of a coma into a world that has passed you by.”
If you are worried about your mental health, or if you’re concerned about someone else, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website, with NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer. For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.