Humans are social beings and our well-being depends upon connection to one another (Cook, 2013). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has directly influenced interactions and for some, led to loneliness due to perceived social isolation. This article will explore what constitutes loneliness, how this state of being affects the brain, and how this may influence addressing conflict.
Loneliness and social isolation are not mutually exclusive: one can be both lonely and socially isolated. It is also possible for one to be lonely and not socially isolated, or vice-versa. In 2019, the Angus Reid Institute presented its research findings on social isolation and loneliness amongst Canadians. Five groups were identified: The Desolate (those both lonely and isolated), the Lonely but not Isolated, the Isolated but not Lonely, the Moderately Connected, and the Cherished. The Desolate and Lonely but not Isolated groups made up 23% and 10% respectively. One key finding was People of Colour, Indigenous Peoples, those with mobility challenges, and LGBTQ2 individuals are more likely to deal with social isolation and loneliness than the general population average (Angus Reid Institute, 2019).
There are five dimensions to loneliness, and it can be experienced when at least two dimensions are present (Rokach, 2020). The five dimensions include:
- Emotional distress. Can come in the form of pain, hurt, and anxiety.
- Social inadequacy and alienation. Feeling inadequate, ignored, and not valued.
- Interpersonal isolation. The thought that one does not matter to others.
- Self-alienation. Experiencing the body as separate from the mind as a defense mechanism to prevent the feeling of pain of loneliness.
- Growth and discovery. Realization of having more resources to cope than initially thought, appreciation of others, interpersonal relationships, and better understanding of oneself and one’s world.
Recent research conducted by R. Nathan Spreng and associates identified that loneliness alters brain regions associated with perceptual, attentional, and affective processing of social information, though the most notable shift occurs within the default mode network (DMN) (Spreng, et al., 2020). The DMN is made up of regions of the brain associated with internal thought and mental representation of oneself over time and space and others, including their intentions, identity, and affiliation (Pressman, 2020) (Spreng, et al., 2020). The DMN is involved in certain types of social cognition processes such as obtaining, retrieving, and processing information about life, relationships, and mental states of self and others (Mars, et al., 2012).
Founder of the social neuroscience field, John Cacioppo, and colleague Louise Hawkley conducted research on social isolation and cognition that revealed loneliness impairs executive functioning of the brain. Executive functioning is one’s capacity to control attention, cognition, emotion, and/or behavior to better meet social standards or personal goals (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009). The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for executive functions. The medial prefrontal cortex, one of the regions that makes up the DMN, is found within the frontal lobe.
The altered processing of social information, representation of self and others, and impairment to executive functioning influences how one engages with their environment. In addition, loneliness plays an instrumental role in mood, anger, anxiety, optimism, self-esteem, and related states (Cacioppo, et al., 2006). Because of heightened feelings of insecurity and sensitivity to threats and rejection, lonely individuals may view themselves as passive victims but be active contributors in interpersonal interactions because of their self-protective and self-defeating interactions with others (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2005).
How might a lonely individual respond to a conflict situation?
Conflict is inevitable; the consequences of it can be either positive or negative depending how it’s managed. When conflict is present, the limbic system and thalamus regions of the brain are engaged. The limbic system supports emotion, behaviour, and long-term memory while the thalamus is important to processing information that creates perception (Rekow, 2018). It is known that brain regions are affected by conflict and that loneliness alters the brain and influences perception of self, others, and engagement with the environment. Because of this it would be reasonable to suggest with increased probability a lonely individual would have difficulty managing conflict effectively. One might expect behaviours such as short attention span, longer time required to process information, difficulty to acknowledge contribution in a conflict situation, struggle to control emotions, conflict avoidance, sensitivity to feedback, and feelings of worthlessness may manifest.
As we begin the move toward a post-COVID posture, a conflict management specialist may encounter a higher percentage of clients than pre-COVID who either self-describe or present themself as lonely. Consequently, conflict management specialists may consider reviewing their intake and the structure of the client meeting to best support a lonely individual as it may take more time to develop trust, support de-escalation of emotion, and create the foundation for psychological safety in the eventuality the client is prepared for conflict engagement. A starting point could be to incorporate questions that identify where an individual is on a continuum representing the five dimensions outlined by Rockach.