Lonely in lockdown

May 5, 2021 · Print This Article

Much has been written about the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and perhaps the biggest contributor is the loneliness and isolation that are natural side effects of locking ourselves out of harm’s way.

It seems that the older you are, the lonelier you will be. Surveys suggest that half a million people over the age of 60 in the UK spend every day alone. And even if you don’t belong in this group, most people know a relative or a neighbour who does. A sobering thought.

We would appear to be social beings, who need to be with other social beings, to truly survive. A reality that has been brought into sharp focus by all the lockdowns, shielding and other restrictions.

One piece of research used the lockdown as an opportunity. On March 24th 2020, the day after the Prime Minister announced measures including staying at home and the closing of public spaces, University College London started a weekly, on-line survey about wellbeing, mental health and coping strategies.1 After crunching data provided by the 70,000 respondents, the researchers are beginning to realise that social isolation physically changes the brain; how it is wired, and how it works. Our brains adapt and structurally change depending on the environment they exist in. Other studies examining isolation and loneliness have shown reduced volume in brain areas to do with decision making, social behaviour, learning, memory and the processing of emotion. In contrast, areas that we use frequently actually grow. The brain doesn’t actually get bigger – that would be disastrous for a delicate and fragile organ that, for its own safety, is encased in an unyielding, bony box. But areas that are ‘exercised’ create more neural pathways.

Loneliness has been described as ‘a discrepancy between what you want and what you have in your relationships’.2 The fact it can re-wire your brain and essentially change who you are, might be worrying. But we have plenty of information that changes can actually be positive – and some of it comes, not only from psychological research, but from much older writings. A letter written almost 2000 years ago by the Apostle Paul contains much wisdom. He said:

‘Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realised’.3

These qualities need us to be interacting with others. Without understanding the neurological structure of the brain, Paul knew that living a Christian life required people to work with each other. Even today, being part of a Christian community might mean that loneliness doesn’t get so much of a ‘look-in’.

Maggie Mitchell info@because.uk.com

Maggie is an editor at Because.

2Stephanie Cacioppo, University of Chicago
3The Bible – Philippians 4:8 (MSG)


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