I led a hyperactive life until the pandemic. I had the Delta variant and during that time I fell down and fractured my spine. This forced isolation resulted in me going into acute depression. The most obvious manifestation of this was waves of anxiety which I would get daily, leaving me restless, unsure and terribly anxious. Over time and with proper treatment I got over it. Recently it has come back. Dr Sudhir Khandelwal, former Head of the Psychiatry department of All India Medical Sciences, whom I met recently again for an informal chat, told me that even post-Covid there have been several cases of anxiety but in my case the trigger is loneliness.
I am a thinking person who is reasonably occupied in various activities including writing. I am a bachelor but I have my sister and brother-in-law staying in an apartment just below mine and we meet several times a day. I have several friends whom I meet regularly so how could I be lonely? There is one big difference; until a few years ago I was living in Mumbai and had spent nearly five decades in Media and Entertainment, until I decide to stop working.
I shifted my primary residence to Delhi. For four years I had a research team and we researched for a big fat book I was writing on the History of Indian Media & Entertainment. I then wrote the 1,000 page book Words. Sounds. Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India, which was published by HarperCollins, and was well received. Then came Covid, where I was struck by the Delta variant and I fell and fractured my spine. This was the first time I was struck by anxiety. A gnawing feeling that there is something not quite right. This emptiness comes unannounced from within.
I was treated and recovered well. I keep myself reasonably occupied, writing another book and sundry articles. I keep visiting Mumbai and have maintained my professional linkages alive. My friends and associates are still close to me. Then why is it that I am lonely? I am trying to figure out the reason. There is nothing obviously wrong with me or the life I have led or am leading now. I have more than fair success, fame, money, power and material comforts. I am close to my family, in fact even my extended family, and have hundreds if not a few thousand friends. Yet why do feel alone? Is there a hurt or unrequited love, unfulfilled ambition or desire? Am I living in denial?
So what is loneliness? Well known thinker J Krishnamurti has this to say about it, “So what is loneliness? Without escaping, without running away into illusory, imaginary ideals, the actual fact is that I am despairingly, anxiously lonely. I may be married, I may have sex, I may have children, but this thing is rotting. Most of us are deeply hurt from childhood, and we carry that hurt throughout life. You can say it doesn’t matter, that it will not affect your action, but it does affect action because unconsciously, deeply, your actions are guided by your hurt. You build a wall around yourself not to be hurt more, and the consequences of that hurt are bitterness and more loneliness.”
There is a definite link with the forced isolation of the Covid pandemic. There is enough empirical data that post Covid anxiety levels have increased. Writing in Skeptical Inquirer in May 2023, Harriet Howe writes, “Surveys have reported that loneliness affects up to 61 percent of the population. But what do people mean when they say they are lonely? Loneliness is a feeling of being alone, of lacking companionship. According to the American Psychological Association, loneliness is a cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone, the emotional distress we feel when our inherent needs for intimacy and companionship are not met, a perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships (in terms of either quantity or quality) (Chai 2022).
Loneliness also describes what you feel when you’re in a crowded room and aren’t connecting with the people around you as much as you’d like to be. It may involve:
– Feelings of sadness, emptiness, discomfort, or disconnectedness;
– Feeling left out or isolated from others;
– A longing for companionship;
– Feeling like you’re misunderstood or not heard (Note: this is a common complaint of mass shooters and may be one of the root causes of gun violence.);
– Feeling isolated even when you’re surrounded by others;
– Feeling exhausted or burnt out by social interactions;
– Feeling insecure;
– Ruminating and reminiscing on the past. (Chai 2022)”
There are physiological reasons to for anxiety. Hormonal imbalance. Lower Serotonin or Dopamine levels. Psychiatrists routinely prescribe medicines of various kinds to correct this imbalance. Many cases are treated successfully, while some spend an entire lifetime on anti-depressants. Some resort to meditation, others to cognitive therapy. There are different triggers for loneliness. One is a loss of the sense of belonging. We are gregarious by nature. We grow up in a family. Then you form friendships and other communities like school and college groups, professional groups or larger social or work or location communities. Over time you develop an affinity and kinship among these various communities. Then you lose these associations owing to different reasons like a change in job or location or retirement. And then there is a vacuum. This can lead to a loss to the sense of belonging and even isolation. This may them ignite anxiety as your search for your roots and relationships.
Some people keep themselves occupied in other ways but circumstances may force you to feel isolation. On the face of it you are still engaged with a new set of people but being occupied is often superficial. You continue to feel isolated and lonely. There is an overlap often between the leading to anxiety and depression.
“The differences between loneliness and isolation is that loneliness is when you don’t have any friends or family and are just alone and isolation is when you choose to be by yourself, as in isolating yourself from everything. Being lonely has to deal with both social barriers and isolation is just dealing with personal choice. Most people enjoy loneliness rather than isolation because isolation is something that someone chooses to do and no-one wants to be lonely so it’s most likely that people will avoid being lonely” says psychologist Jaquan Stewart.
Henry David Thoreau rhapsodised his alone time. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). “Why should I feel lonely?… I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. Lo! How romantic to be alone!” he begs his reader to think. And yet, Walden Pond sat within a large park that was often swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, skaters and ice fishers. In his ‘isolation’, Thoreau was frequently with Ralph Waldo Emerson; and he went home as often as once a week to dine with friends or eat the cookies his mother baked. Of course he wasn’t lonely: he was so seldom truly alone. Easier said than done. We can keep ourselves as busy as we want.
The fact is the breakdown of the joint family system and the empty nester syndrome leaves a lot of senior people lonely. Keeping yourself busy with sundry activities does add as a temporary relief. Retirement or giving up professional work leaves a yawning gap in older lives. It’s a vacuum is tough and a relentless struggle. Lets not confuse being alone with loneliness. The anxiety and depression which follows is difficult to handle. No one has an answer. There is medication which is available under a doctor’s advice. Unfortunately there’s no pill to cure loneliness.