2 Apr 2020

Why does the heart find isolation so hard?

5:48 pm on 2 April 2020

On paper staying at home sounds simple, so why does it feel so hard? Nearing the end of week one of lockdown, psychologists say it's normal for people to be feeling trapped and isolated.

Reporter Rachel Thomas, with her gran, Jill Thomas, sharing a real life hug.

Reporter Rachel Thomas and her nana, Jill Thomas, sharing a real life hug before the lockdown. Photo: Supplied

We asked people who have lived in different forms of isolation how they made the best of it.

My own nana, Jill Thomas, is spending lockdown alone in a small retirement village in Katikati.

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She's been taking it in her stride. After all, spending long periods of time without seeing family is something she's done before.

When World War II broke out, and her older brother, Russell, was sent to work on aeroplanes letters could take weeks to reach the other side of the world and phonecalls were a luxury.

She said being separated from loved ones was hard back then too, but people found comfort together.

"It unites a country, well it did way back then. You know, you find comfort within each other's little bubbles, as they call it."

Morag Turnbull on Mt Moumoukai, Raoul Island in the Kermadecs.

Morag Turnbull on Mt Moumoukai, Raoul Island in the Kermadecs. Photo: Supplied

Morag Turnbull spent six months in her own bubble, working for the Department of Conservation on Raoul Island in the remote Kermadec archipelago.

Aside from a handful of visitors who came and went, she lived and worked with just six other people.

"I just saw it as an adventure and something new, a new experience and challenge."

Now she's in isolation in Wellington with her two flatmates.

While it is a little more confined than Raoul Island, she had some advice for combatting the blues.

"This is more of a day- to- day thing, see how it pans out over each day. I'm trying not to look at the big picture too much, because it's partly unknown.

"Taking joy in little things each day really does help."

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Supplies being airdropped to Morag Turnbull and colleagues on Raoul Island. Photo: Supplied / Morag Turnbull, DOC

According to experts, finding meaning and giving meaning to others each day is important.

Masses of research tells us sustained isolation and loneliness can have a similar effect on our health to high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking.

Hard-wired for physical contact

Wellington psychologist Dougal Sutherland said isolation is in fact so abhorrent to us, that we still use solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

"If someone's been really bad, you really want to punish them, you put them in isolation. That human connection with others is vital for us."

He said this was why we needed to consider the language we use during lockdown.

"I've been really keen on us not using the term social isolation but using the term physical distancing - so the concept being - physical distancing, but socially connected."

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire said loneliness goes beyond a feeling, it's a biological flag, hard-wired in us to say - 'we need to find other humans'.

"The way in which we have survived and evolved as a species is by being together and drawing on each other.

"I think the problem at the moment, even compared to other traumatic incidences - is people are experiencing these feelings of loneliness and they can't alleviate those.

"Here we are, not being able to shake that, as we might normally do."

Maguire said our brains are hard- wired to release feel good chemicals when we're physically with other people.

If we don't feel fulfilled from video calling it's because our brains must work harder to notice that we are not alone.

But despite that, any face to face contact will be helpful, Maguire said.

"I've noticed there's a real mix between some people being friendly and other people obviously very frightened. That simple 'hello' - wave and make eye contact with people - will be important."

Neighbours waving hello.

A simple wave 'hello' across the fence can brighten a day. Photo: 123rf

'You can talk to the world'

Nana keeps assuring me she's doing fine. She said these hard times can still bring people together, albeit in a slightly different way than the War did.

Family are calling frequently and making sure she's fed and occupied.

"[The War] united people, it united nations. Now people don't unite so much by person, they can get on a technical implement and talk that way.

"You can talk to the world. You sort of feel as if you're not alone."

Nana said it's okay that we can't hug at the moment.

Just before isolation began, she said: "I'm always hugging you in my heart".

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