In the UK 25 million people report they are occasionally, sometimes or often lonely, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness. In the US the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, recently disclosed his own experience of “profound loneliness” as he released his national strategy highlighting just how many people experience loneliness as well as potential solutions to alleviate it. Murthy emphasised that loneliness has escalated into a public health emergency, affecting one in two Americans, with health impacts as serious as addiction and obesity, and warned it was as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Murthy’s candid account of his own loneliness was picked up by multiple media outlets and resonated deeply with my client Murray*. Like many people, Murray struggled to understand that loneliness doesn’t just affect people who are socially isolated or who live alone. Murray is professionally successful, earns a higher-than-average income and lives with a partner and teenage children. He plays sport, helps with his children’s sport clubs and keeps a busy round of dinners and social events for work. Murray sought help for anxiety which he found scary and surprising. He’d begun experiencing overwhelming panic attacks that took hold of him at unpredictable times and seemingly without warning. Murray felt ashamed and helpless and just wanted the attacks to stop. In telling me about himself he didn’t mention any feelings of loneliness.
A form of psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective for treating anxiety disorders. Through CBT, psychologists help people learn to identify and effectively manage the factors that fuel their anxiety. Skilled psychologists guide their clients through a process of developing strategies to dial down the impact of anxiety on their lives. For Murray this involved paying more attention to and noting down how he was feeling, sensations in his body, the thoughts popping into his mind and what was happening around him. He described it as detective work on himself, which is an excellent way to think about this process.
A typical high achiever, Murray immersed himself into the detective work and it didn’t take long to identify some clear patterns – in almost all his experiences of panic he was also feeling alone and afraid.
When I asked him if he ever felt lonely, Murray’s initial response was dismissal and avoidance: “That’s ridiculous, I’m rarely alone. I’ve got my family, colleagues, teammates, friends. And there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
For any of us who have experienced panic – and we certainly know this from the psychological research – panic thoughts are unlikely to be “rational” and rarely respond to “logic” or dismissal. Rather, giving them some airtime to understand what the thoughts might mean or how they may be possible flags to beliefs that are unhelpful is usually a better approach. Framing emotions as “data” was more helpful for Murray and enabled him to consider them with a more compassionate lens.
Murray’s assumption that feeling alone wasn’t possible when surrounded by people is a common one, but also one we know is untrue. Kasley Killam is a social scientist who is an expert in social health, connection, and loneliness. She describes the myth of loneliness and social isolation:
These terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. Social isolation is the objective state of being alone. In contrast, loneliness is the subjective experience of disconnection. This means that you could be around other people, yet still feel lonely.
Why might that be? Loneliness can arise from not feeling seen, understood, or validated. It can come from spending time with people who don’t share your values or interests. It can also come from too many superficial interactions and not enough deeper connections.
Killam’s definition of loneliness strongly resonated with Murray. He expressed how (with this new insight) he had always clung to the roles in his life and doing “good work” – a good manager, good partner, good dad, good friend – while often feeling disconnected and far away. Ever since he was young, Murray had strived to be good, but not to be open or vulnerable. A tactic that worked through a difficult childhood now meant he was “frozen in this life”, as he described it.
The new work for Murray is to actively deepen his connections with family and the people that are important to him, and perhaps to dial back some of the social interactions that are less meaningful. Doing so will involve great courage as he initiates different conversations and connections, perhaps even to share some of his feelings of loneliness. Our hypothesis as he does this is that the panic will recede. Murray also has learned not to fear the panic itself. Instead, he recognises that the fear and palpitations serve as crucial data and indicators of his sense of disconnection. As Murray slowly begins to open up and share some of his inner world, he will be able to receive support and care from his loved ones.
Given the US surgeon general’s recent admission, I expect Murray might find that the people around him may also confide their own experiences of loneliness. This realisation can foster a deeper sense of connection as they navigate their shared journey towards alleviating loneliness.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
• Gaynor Parkin is a clinical psychologist and founder of Umbrella Wellbeing. Erika Clarry is a research assistant at Umbrella