Loneliness epidemic: In a post-COVID world, people still struggle to form connections

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When the COVID-19 outbreak spread, governments across the world were forced to issue nationwide lockdowns and strict no-contact measures.

Resources were heavily directed to finding ways to deal with the consequences of the-then new and unfamiliar disease that was killing thousands every day.

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Amid all the uncertainty, medical professionals and researchers noticed that the COVID-19 outbreak had further exacerbated an already existing epidemic: loneliness.

But in a post-coronavirus world, the issue remains ever-present - and potentially more impactful on health than obesity or smoking.

‘Am I lonely?’

Loneliness is described as feeling alone and isolated, and not necessarily being alone. It is a state of mind when we crave connection but are unable to get it.

Humans thrive on connection, Neha Qazi, Family Psychoeducator and School Liaison at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, told Al Arabiya English.

People take part in an event in New Jersey. (File photo: Reuters)
People take part in an event in New Jersey. (File photo: Reuters)

“Loneliness can be described as an absence of, or a limit of, this connection,” she said.

Loneliness may be a universal experience, but it is unique to each individual, Qazi explained.

“How an individual weighs this absence or limit varies and is unique to their personal experiences. Some may quantify it by weighing it against their social worth, while others may consider it an internal process of comfort with self and connection of mind and body.”

According to Qazi, her clients are often unaware that what they are experiencing is loneliness because they may lack the emotional awareness and vocabulary to identify and name the experience.

Instead, they may talk about the impact of loneliness on their lives, such as feeling depressed whether they are alone or among others, anxious in social settings, or unsatisfied with their relationships.

A dangerous experience

The dangers of loneliness on humans are so detrimental to our health that US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an 82-page advisory on the subject earlier this month.

The report highlights how a lack of social connection is significantly tied to increased health risks.

Young lady sitting on sofa. (Stock photo)
Young lady sitting on sofa. (Stock photo)

Loneliness leads to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, and premature death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The US National Institute of Aging also found that feeling lonely has the same mortality impact as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day – greater than the risk associated with obesity and physical inactivity.

According to Family Psychoeducator and School Liaison at Dubai’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre Qazi, the mental consequences of feeling alone include stress, depression, social anxiety, and impaired cognitive ability, all of which can impact decision-making, reasoning, and judgment.

The physical consequences of loneliness also include risk-taking behavior, anti-social behavior, substance abuse, and even altered brain function, she said.

While these are most observed, there can be many other consequences for our body and mental health since loneliness can cause stress – the effects of which can be unpredictable and exponential, she added.

Surrounded by people, but feeling alone

More than 200 nationalities live across the UAE with expats making 88.52 percent of the population, according to Global Media Insight.

In a country that ranks as the happiest Arab nation on the World Happiness Report, the presence of loneliness among its residents may be underestimated.

Fast-paced environments, such as the ones that may exist in a busy city like Dubai, witness unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of performance and behaviors, Qazi told Al Arabiya English.

Some people may thrive in a fast-paced environment, but others may feel pressured to achieve and to achieve to no avail, she said.

“This pressure could exist in work, social, or even domestic settings. While performing our duties, we often neglect the need to pause, self-reflect and re-consider our desires,” Qazi explained.

Additionally, when moving to a new country for example, logistical details – finding a suitable job opportunity, a living space, and securing finances – are often prioritized.

What may be neglected is whether the working environment is healthy, the demographics of the colleagues, the opportunity for cultural assimilation and expression is available, and most importantly, the opportunity to network socially is present, according to Qazi.

“Social networks can be formed via work or living communities but are often taken for granted, assuming that it will take a natural course,” she said.

It is important for individuals to seek out communities and activities where they might find a sense of familiarity they long for, such as interest-based groups or communities of the same nationality.

The ‘Dubai Expat Community’ group on Facebook does just that. The group not only provides expats the platform to ask all sorts of questions and advice, but a safe space to do so without feeling judged or isolated.

Dubai Expat Community Group logo. (Supplied)
Dubai Expat Community Group logo. (Supplied)

“Dubai Expat Community Facebook Group aims to harness the power of its members’ collective knowledge to advise, give counsel and provide useful tips, guidance and general ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ to help its 93,000+ members successfully navigate the day-to-day trials of living in Dubai and the UAE,” Katie Jones, owner of Dubai Expat Community on Facebook, told Al Arabiya English.

“Aside from the practical side of things, members often want to socialize and meet up. If you’re a solo expat who’s been brought to the UAE for a new job opportunity, then it’s often so easy to get completely caught up in the working week and to finally reach the weekend with no one to meet and nothing to do,” she added.

The group is currently working on holding physical events to bring together members, Jones added.

Reframing loneliness

Working on forming, or reforming, connections is the most effective immediate solution to dealing with loneliness, according to Qazi.

Normalizing loneliness is also a key factor, she said.

“Normalizing loneliness for ourselves is key. Being patient with oneself, acknowledging that we struggle to connect with ourselves or others, and having some compassion for ourselves [is necessary].”

As important as it is to work on our connections with others, individuals should also seek comfort within themselves.

They must make time to connect with themselves, whether it is through self-care activities such as an at-home spa day or going on a walk around the neighborhood.

“I wonder what would happen if we sought comfort in connecting with ourselves, finding activities to do by ourselves, and developing habits that reinforce positive feelings about the self,” she added.

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