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The cultural experience of loneliness

Why South Asians need to take heed during the Coronavirus pandemic

Photo credit: Adrien Olichon (Unsplash)

Loneliness is an worldwide public health matter. This means many people across the globe have felt a lack of social connectedness for years.

South Asian mental health is a concern for many health and social care services in countries across the world. Key factors here are stigma preventing help-seeking behaviours in brown people, isolated elders due to globalisation and cultural difference making social connection harder.

Covid is a virus that has reached international pandemic status. Across the world, citizens have been told to comply with strict social isolation.

Put all three crises together and you’re looking at a potentially bleak picture, especially for South Asian people. In all fairness, it would have been pretty problematic even without the pandemic, but Covid gave these pre-existing phenomena a dangerous edge.

It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but the human race is not designed to live in isolation – South Asians have made a well-known brand of this. As a British-born Pakistani, I grew up in the ‘80s with so many family members. It was a golden time, with masses of Aunties, Uncles, cousins, both locally here and in Pakistan. I remember causing amazement for my white school friends when I once counted in excess of 50 cousins in total. But it was true. I’ve even got photos to prove it!


As I raise my own family now, I can see just how different my child’s social life is compared to mine at the same age. A common definition of loneliness is the feeling one has about the difference between their actual and desired levels of social connection. And, boy, don’t I feel a sense of loneliness for my child who only has 3 cousins, none of whom live locally!

As a psychologist, I often see loneliness come through my clinic door. But why? Well, loneliness can be defined as a biological desire that drives us to seek out other people, because being with others is a survival instinct: together, we share resources; we’re protected from predators and other elements; it’s an efficient and effective use of effort. This tribeness is seen throughout human history. Neuroscience can back up this idea of an innate drive because certain parts of our brains are activated when we feel lonely, which in turns triggers a physiological and emotional response to get out there and participate in a social life. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, loneliness places us in a threat state which can turn our attention to self-preservation. So while there is an optimal functioning around loneliness that motivates us to engage with the world around us, too much loneliness can push us into a sense of hyper-vigilance around potential dangers which can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. Diagnoses then ensue such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, chronic health conditions in general, anxiety and depression…

And thus, we are brought back to the classic South Asian experience of common health problems. I remember hearing that health conditions rampant in South Asians are caused by dietary differences and stress from having the pressure to build a new foundation upon emigration. While I agree to some degree, newer research implies that the health impact of loneliness is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! That’s insane to me, but this feels like it makes a bit more sense given our historical context. Many of our former family members migrated to other countries following the separation of Pakistan from India: so there was a lot of exodus in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You only have to read a little or talk to a few to appreciate just how horrific that time was for the Indians and new Pakistanis. And then to enter countries like the UK and America often when you barely knew any of your own people and where racism was rife would have added social isolation and loneliness to the growing list of unspoken mental health queries.

Some of these feelings may have been mitigated by creating families and becoming financially secure, but side issues developed: not talking openly about life experiences, leaving older generations behind, putting pressure on next generations to do well academically and financially, the forceful insistence of cultural and religious practices regardless of their ‘fit’ to host country practices, keeping problems away from the community etc. Have the emotional problems of our former generations just been perpetuated, albeit in a different guise?


After all, South Asians are not exempt from experiencing emotional problems. There are many research findings of the elderly in India and the Western countries experiencing loneliness as a result of living alone or reduced family ties or the rise of depression in South Asian youth over the past five or so years. However, we are globally notorious for not taking up mental health support, likely engaging only at or past the point of crisis. We are thought to stigmatise emotional challenges, where shame and a fear of others finding out are hindering factors. This is ironic since the nature of South Asian culture is collectivist. But this traditional perspective, typically held by the older generation, for some reason has had a slower attrition rate, so that even our younger generations feel this stigma – more strongly, perhaps, than other non-host cultures. This is a particular perpetuating issue because loneliness’s one major weakness is having someone you can share your inner worries with. A bit tricky when you’ve been raised to keep it all inside.

So it’s possible, then, that loneliness is a South Asian experience we have simply learnt not to talk about, and – along with other normal emotional reactions to life events – we have not developed help-seeking behaviours for. As such, we are seeing the younger generations replicating this silence, to their detriment.

In addition, we’d not quite considered the modern-day challenges for the next generation which also impact on loneliness according to the research, namely an internet-heavy lifestyle which seems to exacerbate loneliness (remember loneliness is defined by wanting a level of connection currently not felt) by being constantly exposed to displays of apparent ‘great life’ stories.

So when you throw on top the current pandemic with its social-connection-breaking global restrictions that we have been told to follow strictly, else we or someone else could die – not great for brown people. In fact, the ONS reported last year that individuals of Indian ethnicity were more likely to have increased or persistent sleep loss caused by worry when Covid kicked in. And loneliness has increased significantly for 25% of Indians since Covid came. It is a worry.

We need to be careful as a people who probably have especially strong neuroscience of interconnectedness but are plunged into the vastness of cyber-fuelled lifestyles – shrouded for safety reasons in the extreme isolation of these Covid times – which are laid on a clear foundation of ‘emotional dishonesty’. A recipe for disaster, because every cell in our brown bodies and every neurone in our brown minds will yearn for collective living, but we cannot get this tonic for a healthy and natural lifestyle if we don’t speak up, if we don’t seek help and if we don’t adapt to support the other generations’ challenges. And so we run the risk of developing unhealthy and unnatural habits, so if Covid doesn’t finish us off…

So, here are my top 7 strategies for survival as a South Asian who might be feeling lonely, and especially during the pandemic:

1. Try to develop an understanding and practice of self-awareness. What am I feeling? Do I know where that feeling came from? Am I really OK feeling this feeling? Would I rather the feeling not be there? Accepting the truth of your experiences will create a strong foundation upon which to move forward and feel better.

2. Self-compassion and kindness play a crucial role in surviving uncomfortable emotions. What would you say to a friend in the same situation? Can you find some relief from the feelings by thinking of something that is true about you, and positive? What can you do for yourself that makes you feel nice, regardless of what others think?

3. Taking it further, normalise conversations around emotional responses to events within your family and try to dismiss feedback that you are ‘showing attitude’ or ‘being dramatic’.

4. Be aware of being trapped by the social media fantasy that seems to be dictating to us what the standards are now, what we should and shouldn’t be doing. These posts and stories may or may not be real and allowing them to feed into a sense of being ‘less good/exciting/loved’ etc. is detrimental to emotional stability.

5. Do you have a confidant/e or close friend with whom you can discuss matters of great personal importance? If you don’t, you might want to think about finding one. It might take some time, especially if you’ve not considered this before, but it’ll be worth the effort.

6. Psychotherapy is a relatively less valued support than medicine. However, before you consider taking any medication for your situation, please consider doing something that directly tackles the cause. Ask your GP to socially prescribe i.e. recommend community-based groups. Many are operating in a Covid-safe way and might be just the ticket!

7. Alternatively, if you feel you need something more in-depth, please consider requesting support from a counsellor or psychologist, on the NHS or privately: utilise their support before your emotional state takes you to crisis point or beyond.

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