As infants, we associate isolation with hunger, discomfort, and disorientation. Those outcomes are so powerfully ingrained in the subconscious that we anticipate them when suddenly cut off from those we depend upon. That ache in the pit of the stomach, the tingling in the extremities, even dizziness – these are reminders that we need to reconnect, and soon. The resulting metabolic state saps our energy and resources, driving us toward physical distress.
As toddlers those reactions extend in a new dimension: we are still learning to interpret facial expressions and succeed reliably only with our family members. Our confusion is often interpreted as rejection, generating hostility in those most likely to offer us support. Portending not just neglect, isolation is the first step into conflict.
As teenagers and adults, among our most important goals is to moderate those reactions. That requires deep social immersion to reverse the conditioning of childhood. In the modern era, unfortunately, we have been seduced by the convenience of “social media.” Our interactions engage only a fraction of our sensory capacities, and so are emotionally and physiologically impoverished. We therefore struggle to override the lessons of childhood.
Given the depth and universality of this causation, we might not be surprised by the claim that loneliness is a major public health concern. This realization compelled Vivek Murthy to promote awareness during his tenure as America’s Surgeon General, and then to write “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
Murthy’s life provided deep preparation for engagement with this project. While raised in a culture of mutual aid, his family was displaced several times during childhood. While this allowed him to witness the methods used to restore community, as an ethnic minority he was bullied in school. Trained to logical diagnosis, as a doctor his patients taught him the importance of connection in healing. Raising his own family, pursuit of professional opportunity left him cut off from family and friends. Murthy has struggled with both acute and chronic loneliness and developed strategies for relief.
The breadth of this experience, however, highlights the challenge of managing loneliness as a public health problem. Loneliness is to suffer from isolation; a person exposed to social stress might crave solitude – the opportunity to minister to their own needs. Loneliness is therefore subjective, and sneaks up on us, becoming obvious only in crisis. Once it takes root in our minds, we become psychologically susceptible to negativity that accentuates our sense of vulnerability. Loneliness amplifies isolation, generating a vicious downward spiral.
The nature of our loneliness reflects the immediacy of our vulnerabilities. Intimate loneliness arises when we confront daily questions regarding how we are going to meet our needs. Relational loneliness arises when we lack the perspective and support of friends and peers. Collective loneliness indicates the sense that our goals are not supported by our culture. Intimate loneliness can arise in hours, relational loneliness in weeks, and collective loneliness over months or years.
The expression of loneliness also varies. Loneliness, properly understood, should be considered a mood rather than an emotion. Loneliness may be expressed as sadness, anger, frustration, or passivity.
Given this complexity, loneliness is difficult to diagnose. What makes it recognizable, fortunately, is the efficacy of connection as a treatment. Murthy’s goal is to sensitize the wellness community to connection as an element of therapy. To that end, Murthy draws upon a wealth of case histories, demonstrating the relationship between loneliness and medical and mental disorders. Vignettes of recovery and service can inspire the lonely to recognize and regulate their conditioned responses to isolation. Social media, often maligned as a distraction from those immediately present, is celebrated as a means of rallying support in times of need.
As mental wellness practitioners, hypnotherapists must be sensitive to the importance of connection in therapy. While the ethic of therapy prohibits our active participation in creating lasting connection, through hypnosis we have a powerful tool for mitigation of negative responses that perpetuate isolation.