The Emotional Pandemics: Shame and Loneliness
The Emotional Pandemics: Shame and Loneliness- In recent weeks and for damned good reason, there has been a lot of public attention paid to the Covid-19 pandemic. While this does in fact pose a very severe threat, there are a host of other public health concerns that, due to their stealthy nature, and due to the irrational nature of human threat perception in humans, fail to command such media attention, but may be a close rival in terms of the overall wake of destructiveness. These emotional pandemics will endure, long after Covid-19 has been subdued. In any given year, potentially preventable deaths arising from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol related crimes and accidents, heart disease and diabetes, to name but a few, are more deadly than the combination of SARS, MERS, and Ebola. Of course it is far too early to know the impact of Covid-19. But, for example, there were almost 50,000 suicides and almost 70,000 drug overdoses last year alone.
The separate scourges of shame and loneliness on their own have tremendous impacts on mental and physical health. Though insidious, the impact of these emotional pandemics are measurable, incredibly widespread and highly destructive. Lethal in many cases. And even imparts personal risk to viral pandemics. However, shame and loneliness often travel together and interact in a dangerous and circular manner. Shame is the feeling that one is essentially flawed or deficient. One way this manifests is the pervasive feeling that one is therefore not deserving of relationships. This then leads to avoidance of forming meaningful or satisfying interpersonal connections which in turn results in accelerated shame. Thus, we feel lonely, but moreover, feel deserving of this loneliness. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as condemned isolation.
Both shame and loneliness, each on their own, can contribute to depression, anxiety, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, PTSD and self-injurious behavior. Furthermore, they can serve to significantly undermine immunity, and therefore increase personal risk when one is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens. Shame and loneliness acting in unison, only accelerate this process, and thereby further contributing to social isolation. This then can lead to secondary behaviors which undermine health, such as smoking, overeating and obesity, and lack of exercise. These lifestyle factors are huge contributors to the biggest diseases; heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer. These breakdowns in behavior can further fuel the perception of shame, adding to further loneliness. Add to this, the need for personal distancing to help combat the Covid-19 threat.
Recent research in the United States indicates that when asked how many people you can turn to in the event of an emergency, the majority of respondents indicated one or none. Three out of five or 60 percent of adult Americans report significant feeling of loneliness. Similarly, other data reveal further evidence of growing isolation in our country, unparalleled by any other country or time in history. It appears that our increasing reliance on social connection through technology is amplifying our feelings of isolation. The reasons for the apparent rise of shame and loneliness in our culture is extremely complex. I can over conjecture but it would be just that… conjecture. Social scientists are working diligently to identify the complex causal factors. But suffice it to say, that the American Dream is turning into something of a nightmare for many.
By our very genetic makeup, humans are “pack animals.” We were not born with fangs, fur, or claws. As individuals, we are very ill suited for survival. Our large brain only offers an advantage within the context of a group or tribe. It is this connection to a tribe that creates a sense of security, connection, and meaning. When our sense of connection to the larger unit is severed or even threatened, the result can be a tremendous feeling of alienation and anxiety. This often has its roots in early development when in dysfunctional family systems a child learns that his or her acceptance is conditional, sporadic or unpredictable. This then fosters anxious or avoidant attachments and the internalized feeling that one is inherently incapable of love and acceptance. Furthermore, one may fail to acquire the social skills to prepare for group inclusion. Such individuals may retreat in technologically based virtual worlds in which they can derive some fleeting sense of connection, importance and meaning. However, such experiences are fleeting and can deepen the sense of loneliness and alienation. Masturbating to a video screen or being a champion on a role-playing video game, or a person with a million YouTube or Instagram followers does not substitute for real connection. In fact, such pursuits can form actual addictive behavior patterns that actually serve to cause further isolation and feelings of ineptness in actual social settings leading to further patterns of avoidance.
In the desperate search for tribal connection, unhealthy tribal forces can emerge. This can take the form of street gangs, cults, aggressive sports fanaticism (fans), and pollical rifts along political factions and parties. This can lead to the appearance of cult like populist leaders who utilize demagogic communication styles to unify a tribal affiliation based on hate, suspicion and rallying around a common enemy. Hitler and World War II arose from exactly such a situation. Populism and nationalism are on the rise in America and around the world in concert with growth in shame and alienation, enhanced further by automation, population displacement, and inequities in income and other socio-economic factors.
Clearly shame and loneliness can cause very unfortunate cycles which build and build, causing a seemingly unbreakable maelstrom of cause and effect. The good news is that this phenomenon is increasingly being explored in various professional and lay circles. Recognition and public awareness are the first steps to addressing this public health pandemic. Bringing it out of the shadows and into the public conversation helps individuals to acknowledge the problem and helps break the stigma that fosters continued hiding. Shame causes one to hide from view and scrutiny. Thus, anything that helps to embolden the afflicted is already a huge step. Rehab centers are starting to open in America and other countries for those with gaming and other technology addictions. Clinicians in the private sector are becoming increasingly versed in dealing with the challenge of loneliness and shame. In this blog site I have endeavored to ways to tackle the issue of shame. In the next posts I will be discussing using similar methodologies, incorporating integrated exposure and mindfulness methodologies to help address the issue of loneliness as well as the combined phenomena of loneliness and shame.