Connecting or not Connecting...this is the question!
Prior to the COVID pandemic, new research came out on Loneliness. It showed how prevalent it is, with a 40% increase from the 1980s and…who knows how much more since we have been in quarantine. The data states that people who suffer from loneliness appear to have shorter lifespans comparing their mortality rate to be equivalent to the mortality rate of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and greater than the mortality impact of obesity and sedentary living. This information leads to many implications that would be helpful to us as both adults and parents of tweens, teens and young adults…we are all struggling.
A new book was published in April of this year called “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” by Dr. Vivek Murthy, Former US Surgeon General. I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a conference called Wisdom 2.0 on March 5th, 2020 in San Francisco, one week before quarantine. He explored how loneliness is a key factor in many mental and physical illnesses.
There are many contributing factors to Loneliness and today we will look at 3 of them with a few solutions. They are: 1.One’s Perceptions, 2.Interaction with Technology and 3.COVID.
One’s perceptions are key. Does one perceive having enough connections? Are those connections meaningful? Is there a desire for certain people or types of relationships and is that desire or need not being met…from a family member or special friends? Our society states that success is based on work rather than deep emotional connection in relationships. We know that value not to be the case. A remarkable study led by Naomi Eisenberger, an associate professor of social psychology at UCLA, found that feeling excluded, triggered activity in some of the same regions of the brain that register physical pain. This can be a real or even perceived exclusion.
This takes us to the 2nd contributing factor, which is one’s interaction with technology. Technology can either connect or isolate. People might see themselves as excluded through social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram…for example, when a picture shows a group getting together and others can then see that they weren’t included. This can be painful and cause someone to feel lonely or left out. People who feel lonely may see that they have 500 “friends” but don’t feel like they have a real connection, a real friend. Someone whom they can call up if they’re sick and need a meal delivered. According to Dr. Delaney Ruston in her 2016 documentary “Screenagers” she says teens spend 6.5 hours a day on screens and in 2019 when her documentary “Screenagers Next Chapter” came out, experts at Common Sense Media reported the screen time to have increased to 9 hours per day. With so much time on screens, no wonder we feel lonely. And then there is the quality of time with others…are we texting and emailing? Or are we calling people? Are we present? Or distracted and multi-tasking while connecting? Often these are not satisfying connections…and speaking about satisfying connections…
The last factor, which is COVID puts the idea of connection into a whole other arena. We are mandated to “socially isolate”. This term and forced condition of life can present strong feelings of separation and loneliness. We aren’t able to have personal, one on one, satisfying connections with friends and outside family members, no hugs or touches which is an important factor when it comes to connection and squelching feelings of loneliness.
So given these real and perceived daily factors, they may feel the scope and value of their lives are shrinking. Here are some ways to help them expand, rebuild, find purpose and most importantly form meaningful connections.
In regards to how one perceives their life, focus can be given to prioritize how they want to live their lives, who they want to spend their virtual time and energy with, how they can connect with others in meaningful ways and what they want to do with their time. This is where we can discuss healthy choices like exercise, meditation, nutrition, social skills to connect with others and creating schedules of when to achieve these goals, which I have found to be especially useful with tweens and teens.
Technology, just 12 months ago was of big concern. Now it’s the lifeline to friends, family, work, education, therapy, social interactions and so much more. The way screens are designed, the brain finds many apps and interactions highly stimulating and potentially addicting so there needs to be a balance.
There are many lectures and classes, Virtual Meetups, meetings on Zoom, Book clubs and so much more. But also due to screen fatigue and dependence on electronics, Cooper Anderson and Jon Kabat Zin, in an interview, shared that meditation can be a wonderful break from devices and good for our mental health … and physical health as well.
Finally, some positive options during COVID and social distancing can be intentional personal development…spending more time in nature, trying new things, implementing art and home projects (thanks to YouTube and Pinterest) and doing community service. There are food banks that offer drive thru pick up, like West Valley Food Pantry or making calls to the elderly with an organization called Uplifting Today. This can facilitate a sense of purpose and connections.
Let’s help our loved ones’ physical and emotional health, by sharing with them the importance of connection and the liabilities of loneliness and disconnection. This is crucial now more than ever before. We could be adding years to one’s life by guiding them to connect…REALLY CONNECT!
by Stephanie Bien, LMFT, LPCC
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