CALIFORNIA: Improved mental health is the most common response to a Forbes Survey, with 45 percent of respondents putting it as their top goal for 2023. With the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and chronic loneliness globally, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that the health risks of loneliness and social isolation are just as serious as the risks associated with smoking or obesity.
Increasing evidence points people with stronger social ties live longer and express greater satisfaction with their lives.
Instead of eating healthier and exercising more, many are looking for advice on how to combat loneliness, cement relationships, and be more mentally and emotionally healthy.
Shalini K Narang (SKN) spoke to Vinutha Mohan (VM), licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma and attachment repair in Saratoga, California about how loneliness has manifested and progressed and her advice on overcoming this scourge.
Prior to setting up her private practice, Vinutha worked at Stanford for over eight years.
SKN: How rampant are issues of loneliness, depression and anxiety?
VM: Loneliness as an epidemic has been growing post industrialization and Covid just made it worse because of forced social isolation, anxiety and paranoia. People are still struggling to re-enter the community in a socially intelligent way.
I see more attention being paid to this topic now, especially with Dr. Vivek Murthy, talking about it, writing about it in his book Together. He wants the government to start funding programs to end this epidemic of loneliness.
In a study that Stanford did across all age groups on campus wellness, we found that loneliness is the biggest epidemic affecting all age groups. However, it manifests differently across genders.
I have my relatives in India and see loneliness there too. My husband is from Mumbai, and the building he grew up in is filled with old people living by themselves in their flats, with only the television and cell phone as company.
SKN: Why has loneliness become so widespread?
VM: Social scientists are beginning to talk about how the so-called “nuclear family” has been the biggest failure as an experiment.
Seeds of the loneliness epidemic were sown due to industrialization-when people began moving to far away cities looking for economic opportunities.
Prior to industrialization, we had our tribe, the village priest, shaman, family elders who were available to talk and guide us. The village shaman was everything -a medicine man, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist and a priest. People lived in the same ancestral villages for generations and had each other. They talked and helped each other out. All of that has gone away.
Sometimes, people struggle with loneliness because they have some sort of social anxiety, depression, or may have had childhood trauma making the world seem unsafe for them. Loneliness is first on the inside, before it manifests on the outside.
SKN: How has the loneliness epidemic progressed?
VM: Economic freedom gave us the unhealthy belief of each to his own, planting the “I, me, mine culture” and focusing on making a living, educating children, amassing wealth, etc. The construct of community and joint family slowly began to fall.
We came to the US as immigrants, away from our families, culture, tribe, and over a period of time got brainwashed by the puritanical ideal of a lone ranger suffering silently and primarily focused on accumulating material wealth.
We started to see vulnerability as weakness, telling ourselves that it is not okay to ask for help, just suck it up and, push through, pretend to have no weaknesses and put on a happy face.
Material success has given us a false sense of arrogance that we don’t need others.
And then there are those who hide behind politeness, “Oh, I don’t want to bother anyone, everybody has their own issues, everyone is struggling.” Using their kindness as a vulnerability shield.
This trend started a long time ago and now it is an epidemic.
We have been culturally conditioned to believe that we are somehow supposed to do life alone, and it’s a weakness and a personal failure to do it otherwise. This goes completely against neurobiology.
SKN: Can you expand on the neurobiology piece?
VM: We are not meant to do life alone. Our brains are wired for connection. That’s basic neuroscience. If you look at history, the tribes that would bond and band together are the ones that made us more gene copies.
Connection is really tied to our survival. We need cooperation and collaboration to survive. We are meant to work with each other and it takes a village- no matter what age group, stage of life or what you’re going through.
Grassroot movements are necessary. Combating loneliness cannot be top down, forcing people into programs. It has to be more of a grassroots movement.
I encourage building connections by creating small groups of true belonging. Authentic connection is not about having friends on Facebook or going to parties, having little chit chat, or sometimes doing fun activities together.
Connections are developed and cemented with deep meaningful, vulnerable, emotionally naked conversations where you can touch and talk about your longings, fears and wounds. I see that there’s a lot of fitting in, but the belonging is missing.
SKN: What are you seeing in the youth and any suggestions for parents of pre-teens and teens?
VM: With children, it is getting increasingly difficult to get them away from their gadgets these days. But, things to encourage are outdoor activities like organized sports-soccer, basketball or any others.
Especially for boys and men, team activities such as playing a sport leads to having deeper conversations.
Other things like doing art together, playing music together, planting a garden, hiking, camping, can all lead to deeper bonding. Children in a band, or a debate club, or in group art classes often have fun and deep conversations.
In some cases, psychotherapy is necessary to explore your woundedness, darkness and inner conflicts without judgements.
SKN: What are the specific challenges you see in South Asian immigrant populations seeking help for loneliness?
VM: I see so much shame around asking for help and going to a therapist to seek treatment. Some South Asian parents reach out asking for references for their children, but not for themselves. There is a myth that all therapy will lead to medications. Therapists are not allowed to prescribe medications.
A common theme in all my therapy groups across all age groups, cultures, and personal pronouns that many of us are caught up in is some sort of a narcissistic kind of spiral thinking. I’m the only one with this unique problem. Nobody can help me because no one will understand me because my problem is so unique.
The human condition is quite impersonal and our neuroses are not that unique. All fall into a few categories. There is nothing so unique about our wounding. It may have slightly different flavors, but fundamentally the human experience is sort of impersonal in its flavors. It’s so powerful when people share experiences in therapy groups and realize this fact. It normalizes their experiences.
Shames make us create vulnerability shields.
Many people have been victims of gossip too. Some people have had experiences of not having trusted relationships when they share something vulnerable, and had their trust broken.
SKN: What do you mean by becoming vulnerable in communication?
VM: Sharing stories makes us realize that we are not alone and can help each other navigate this earth school.
It helps us get out of this quagmire of, I me, mine thinking. I have never found anyone happy in the I me, mine, kind of thinking. It’s about a common human experience, and let’s help each other dispel loneliness.
When people share their vulnerable stories, a listener has to be a vault. You cannot gossip about it and use somebody else’s wounds as your entertainment over chai. Gossiping is a common disease in our community and prevents people from being vulnerable.
You have to be careful who you pick as your friends. Some of the ways in which you can make meaningful friendships is by starting small-with one friend, or starting through a common shared challenge or activity like volunteering at the temple together, yoga together or a hiking group, or a book club, art or a dancing group.
In common shared activities, find like minded folks but use your discernment. Don’t blab everything to a stranger but don’t just keep conversations superficial.
SKN: How does sharing stories and experiences combat loneliness?
VM: The more you don’t talk about things, the more it will have power over you.
What you keep as a secret has so much power over you and can keep you stuck. Trust at least one person and then slowly build on that.
One of the things that I’m very proud of is my community book club in Saratoga which I have been facilitating for about seven years.
I started it because I was tired of the meaningless, chitchat at parties about what AP courses your kids are taking and where you’re going for vacation and I was longing for something more.
We started as acquaintances and neighbors and over the years, we’ve all become deep friends and the friendships developed through reading and discussing psychoeducational books. It is a sacred sisterhood club. If you want something, you must be willing to create it for yourself.
SKN: How does social communication differ between genders?
VM: In many homes, a woman is sort of the social director of the family and the one building community and when there is no woman in the home, there is a void in the social network.
Men traditionally never developed too many friendships. Perhaps the men did not value friendships as much. There is some research about how in the past, up until 150 years ago, men used to have very deep friendships that were more emotionally intimate than their relationship with their wives. But somewhere along the way, men were shamed for such emotionally intimate relationships with other men and such intimacy was construed as romantic and forbidden.
When I was growing up in India, I saw men holding hands and walking or men hugging each other as friends. But all these things somehow have become taboo, especially in the west.
Globalization has also taken a huge toll on our social lives. Most of us, especially men, are tied to their careers as their sole identity. Our jobs are all consuming and leave us little time for socializing.
Remote working has only worsened the problem. When men get together now, they basically talk about impersonal topics like stocks, tech trends, sports. They don’t have the deeper conversations.
I run a men’s group, and have to work much harder to deepen the conversations against their deep conditioning. It’s tough to get men to come together and talk vulnerably. Teaching men to be vulnerable is hard work, but possible.
SKN: How does one deal with negative feelings?
VM: Feelings are for feeling. We must not be afraid of our thoughts and feelings. Conflict is how we grow. Avoiding conflict does not make problems go away. Human condition is one of struggle and suffering. It is impersonal. Everyone suffers. The intensity may vary. So there is no need to shield up and feign perfection. Denial leads to disease of the mind and body. Shame leads to inflammation. Find the courage to speak your truth and seek help to be authentic.
I believe in a psycho spiritual approach. I think these two fields are slowly converging.
Spiritual teachers say that many people who come to them should be seeing a therapist, especially for traumas. Instead they are coming to the spiritual teacher because it is less shameful and more culturally accepted.
In our culture, there’s a lot of spiritual bypassing. If they are having a difficult time in their marriage, they will volunteer at the temple as if that’s going to help solve the issue, or they will meditate away their problems going to some guru, or will seek an astrologer for a remedy. That’s not how you become authentic.
I am a very devout Hindu and conduct spiritual retreats. Spirituality is a great asset along with psychotherapy. The combination is what I call the psycho spiritual approach. Psychology for the “human” part and spirituality for the “being” part. The combination can be very powerful in healing your inner fragmentation and bringing you closer to an integrated self and an integrated self is an authentic self.
SKN: How does one have better vulnerable social communication in this culture?
VM: Sharing anything that causes us pain and discomfort is a great place to start.
When I go to India, and meet my childhood friends, I find them far more open. They talk about everything. But here, I find that we are stuck in some perfectionist bubble. There is so much posturing, performing, hiding behind a mask.
The South Asian community is a very successful community in the US and we want to maintain a certain persona and are afraid that if we say something that’s vulnerable, it’s going to affect that image of perfection. Shame and perfectionism are twin sisters.
There is no courage without vulnerability. Also, to have deep friendships and connections with others, you have to first develop a deep connection with yourself. If you are not connected to who you are and all parts of you, you cannot truly connect to another person. You are going to constantly project your issues onto others.
A mantra of mine is that everything is an inside out job -whether it’s parenting, marriage, being an emotionally intelligent leader or an emotionally intelligent friend- all has to start on the inside.