The anxiety – and danger – of isolation when you live alone

The other day I did an Instagram Live about the impact of isolation policies on single people, people without kids and, solo dwellers. The already-lonely.

I am one such. My interest was vested…but is also based on my understanding of anxiety science.

Sadly, I didn’t keep the Live video to be able to share on my feed for those of you who missed it. So here are some of the main points I chat about (besides it was a pretty crap session – I was a bit emotional and windswept, materially and figuratively).

I talked about the very real pain being experienced, but also flagged that we are sitting on a mammoth humanitarian time bomb. I reckon we need to get real about it. Encourage our leaders to get cognisant of it. A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half of respondents said their mental health was being harmed by the coronavirus pandemic… but for singles it’s more acute.

I’ll break it down.

First, the pain is real 

Apart from the aching agony of not being able to hug or have sex with anyone, there’s also a few other factors.

Like, the stress of having to make big life decisions and all the other unique household decisions that the virus has imposed on all of us, on our own. This taxes our anxious response (the decision-making part of the brain is intertwined with the part that controls flight and fight responses). We process difficult information way better in the presence of others – it’s referred to as the biological principle of economy of action where in times of uncertainty we look to others for advice as it’s more efficient to draw on the best of two brains. Physical contact assists with this. Researchers have found that simply holding hands with a loved one can decrease the anxiety of navigating the uncertainty and change. Touch quiets the brain’s emotional activity…allowing us to make decisions most effectively.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the former US surgeon general, literally published a new book  YESTERDAY about this exact issue, obviously writing it before Covid-19 struck.  In “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” he argues (with no awareness of the enforced isolation scenario his book would land into) that when we’re separated from the group triggers a fight-or-flight response. You know, anxiety. “Over millennia, this hypervigilance in response to isolation became embedded in our nervous system to produce the anxiety we associate with loneliness,” Murthy writes. We breathe fast, our heart races, our blood pressure rises, we don’t sleep. We act fearful, defensive, and self-involved, all of which drive away people who might actually want to help, and tend to stop lonely people from doing what would benefit them most: reaching out to others.”

This is what is happening to solo dwellers right now – we are being biologically driven into a heightened anxious response, leaving aside the other factors going on for us all.

Dr Murthy also argues that lack of touch has led to the drug, suicide and anxiety “epidemics” of our times (and presumably will see many solo dwellers revert to same in coming months).

I also flag this – single people and solo dwellers get their sense of safety and belonging from the broader community. Some of us get it from the office environment, from our work, from the barista down the road, or from being involved in clubs or groups. All of this is now denied. We are totally cut off, in this important physical sense.

Finally, the added emphasis on families in policy decisions and on social media can add to any wounds we might already feel.All real stuff. But then, also this…

Denying a human touch can kill them

Do you remember those Harry Harlow monkey studies from the 1970s? You’ll know the famous image of the baby monkey denied any contact with its mother or any other monkeys hugging the wire frame with a towel wrapping. Very starkly, it showed monkeys, and presumably humans if you go by the fact we use solitary confinement as the most extreme torture available to prisoners, cannot function without human touch and will sacrifice almost everything to get it.

In 2015 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Brigham Young University, published an analysis of seventy studies, involving 3.4 million people, examining the impact of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. It plays into the Covid-19 crisis.  The meta review found that loneliness increased the rate of early death by twenty-six per cent; social isolation led to an increased rate of mortality of twenty-nine per cent, and living alone by thirty-two per cent—no matter the subject’s age, gender, location, or culture. According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, social isolation has been linked to a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.

The issue is worse in a crisis

It is a natural response for our entire being to seek physical proximity and comfort from humans when we feel in danger. We will go straight for “disconfirming experiences”. According to Bonnie Badenoch, the author of “The Heart of Trauma,” these are experiences of deep reciprocal attunement with other humans, which make us feel viscerally safe. These moments of attunement and co-regulation register in the our autonomic nervous system and overcome the fear and helplessness.

Which is to say, when shit goes down, we need others and their touch to tell us everything will be OK, or at least with them there.

In his new book (which I’ve read excerpts from), Dr Murthy also points out that connecting physically with others counters the damaging biological effects of stress and anxiety. Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, has argued that touch deprivation exacerbates depression and weakens the immune system; positive touch stimulates the vagal nerve and reduces cortisol, a stress hormone that can impair immune response.

We need our leaders to focus on this, as well as family units, the elderly and the economy. It’s been totally understandable to steer aid and support to families in these early weeks, to ensure they are set up to cope with the very challenging pressures of home schooling and childcare adjustments. But the impact of social distancing and isolation on singles also has to be brought in. Like, fast.

author of The Noonday Demon, wrote in the New York Times last week, “We should be figuring out when and how people deprived of touch can get the physical contact they need as safely as possible. It won’t be completely safe — but neither is their sensual deprivation. If people are dying from going untouched, then touch, however regulated, becomes a necessary remedy. It is neither expensive nor complicated.”

This is not about making things “fair” or squaring the ledger. It’s actually about real risk and doing the numbers on things.

If we’re talking lives, the number of suicides that might eventuate must be born in mind. Since the first Covid-19 death was reported, there have been 74,000 fatalities. In this time, there have been 287,000 suicides (which is not at all to say they’re all from the mental health implications of the coronavirus, but more to highlight sheer scale). Also, the mental health damage to the immune system must also be factored in. Isolation places a huge physical toll on the brain’s circuitry, increasing vulnerability to disease—by triggering higher blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones and inflammation—among people who might otherwise not get sick.

If we’re talking economics, multiple studies can point to the gargantuan cost to the economy of mental health issues, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse (and violence).

And if I was to get essentialist about it…

It’s natural for humans to pile on top of each other in a crisis.

What’s not natural is to be sent into physical isolation when danger strikes.


We are driven to do the former. And while it’s unfathomably challenging for all involved in multi-person households around the world (and, indeed, in poor communities there are massive issues with so much proximity), it’s what we’ve done for eons, and mostly to survive. And the latter is what we’ve done when we’ve wanted to torture another.

So what can we do?

Well, as individuals, we can ensure we approximate these disconfirming experiences as best we can – rhythmic practices like yoga, dancing and walking do help.

Also, making any virtual contact as “attuned” as possible will help too. So, making sure you hold eye contact (try to use video calls over voice-only, or email, as often as possible) and do very considered talk. This great TED talk with Priya Parker might help with your online meetings and meet-ups.

What can multi-person households do?

Simply know the above. It’s very understandable for us all to be very focused on our own situation. We are all struggling. But when we have capacity we need to reach out to our communities however we can. This will be our greatest – and most rewarding – challenge in this whole truly strange epoch we have been plonked into.

In Australia, where we have Stage 3 measures in place, households in most States are allowed to invite one person into the home at a time (in Queensland it’s two people). So families and group houses can invite their single friend over for dinner and make them feel part of a community, provide some life-giving attunement.

Single people, however, can’t invite their friend and his daughter over, or their coupled mates. So solo livers are kinda counting on your invite!Also, there’s a basic  numbers thing going on here. The disease risk your single mate presents compared to say your partner and two kids is 1:3. They are only one person among four coming in from outside.

My intention is not to spread irresponsible information or suggest operating beyond what officials are saying is safe in a given community as they balance herd immunity and health care capacity.

Although my intention is unapologetically to have this concern aired. History is full of instances of wild, creative, loving aunts who take in their brother’s wayward children in times of hardship, solo-living inventors and scientists who emerged from hibernation to heal and guide. Their stories remain largely untold until they are called upon.

I think this Covid-19 crisis will emerge as an incredible unearther of stories and lives that have been marginalised and a wonderful healing event and precursor for much broader, creative love. Just as anxiety, to my mind can be.

Shall we keep talking this stuff and see where it heads?


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