An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Human connection and building relationships are skills, and without practice, we lose some of our ability to utilize them. If a person is persistently socially isolated, that individual may struggle when circumstances change to form meaningful connections with others in a new context, which will only perpetuate the loneliness and isolation.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Rebecca Newman. Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer from Philadelphia, PA. She provides individual therapy at the Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in Philadelphia. Previously, Rebecca has worked as a therapist at a residential facility for treating eating disorders and at a methadone maintenance facility, with further experience in violence intervention, Employee Assistance Program counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment research. Rebecca earned a BA from Oberlin College in Creative Writing and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, relationships, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. Information about Rebecca and her work can be found at www.rebeccanewmansown.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Rebecca! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
When I graduated from high school, along with my diploma, my guidance counselor bestowed upon me the school’s copies of all of my report cards. To my surprise, from a very early age, they described my penchant for storytelling, which was encouraging as I went to pursue a Creative Writing degree. While I value those skills and that training, I wanted to find an interpersonal aspect to my eventual career. I looked to social work as an integrated way of working with individuals towards their greater goals, and as I continued down the path, I developed a passion for psychotherapy, which persists today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Sadly, most of my stories are bound by the confidentiality I guarantee my clients. The stories I hold range from the micro significance of being one of the first people to learn about a developing pregnancy, to the macro level of working with individuals at various tiers in local and national companies, and often am privy to some of the dramas and tribulations of what the public will eventually know. Frankly, though, I find each person’s story interesting, no matter the scale of their experience or influence.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
When I was first working in a methadone maintenance facility, I often heard far-fetched reasons for tardiness or missing a day of dosing, as well as a myriad of reasons why someone needed to be medicated early. I tend to look towards the good in people, although in an addiction, one of the behavioral symptoms of the disease is maneuvering situations to one’s benefit, and some of the excuses were humorous as I learned the important skill of setting limits, both personally and in professional settings.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A long-time colleague and friend and I are presenting at a conference regarding creating gender-affirming work environments. The presentation is targeted towards increasing understanding of individuals’ various needs as they pertain to gender, as well as how to address those who are skeptical of the importance of building an environment that is inclusive and thoughtful. We hope that by presenting to our audience, they can bring the information back to their various workplaces and agencies to enact small changes, which will hopefully continue to ripple to palpable changes for marginalized groups.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
As a psychotherapist, I work with individuals to address their various mental health needs, and I find that social isolation is a common thread that runs through other presenting concerns, like anxiety or depression. Loneliness is something that will affect everyone at some point in their lives, whether the result of a loss or a life change, and I think it’s important to have a set of tools to manage that experience when it inevitably arises.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
I think the three reasons that being lonely and isolated are harmful is that it can lead to a decline in daily habits, to catastrophizing thinking, and can impede your long-term ability to connect.
Our daily habits are things like grooming, tidying, doing dishes, laundry, and buying and preparing food. When we are isolated, those tasks can begin to feel futile, as there’s no one in our life to notice that they aren’t completed. Once those tasks begin to pile up, the effect can snowball into exacerbating existing depression, or activate a new episode, which can lead to overall decline in health, both mental and physical.
Without realizing it, we often think in black-or-white terms about the world around us, and it takes a lot of cognitive practice to begin to seek and recognize nuance in appraising situations around us. When we are isolated and lonely, we lack some external cues that would help us recognize that our thinking is catastrophizing, and so we become more steeped in our skewed thinking. Eventually, we come to understand the world in a different manner, one that isn’t warm or inviting, but one that perpetuates the loneliness and isolation we’re experiencing.
Finally, human connection and building relationships are skills, and without practice, we lose some of our ability to utilize them. If a person is persistently socially isolated, that individual may struggle when circumstances change to form meaningful connections with others in a new context, which will only perpetuate the loneliness and isolation.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
In traditional societies, familial connection was the most important asset we had; it allowed us to pool resources, which led to collective survival. Now that we exist in a modern society where we are increasingly individualized, exacerbated by American “bootstraps” values, relying on one another is no longer normalized. When an individual needs help, social structures are generally no longer designed to provide that type of assistance, and when loneliness is added on top of any other need, the fear or reaching out or asking for help only grows. Communities could dwindle and society could become decreasingly empathetic to the needs of others if their own needs were not met in a challenging time.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
We are facing a loneliness epidemic today because we are more geographically mobile than we were in previous generations, and the quality of our connections is low, and our shallow yet present communication prolongs natural endings with the mirage of easily remaining in touch.
As society and technology has evolved, it is easier to travel between geographical areas, and it is similarly easy to relocate. Now that we have this accessibility, people do not necessarily stay in the same geographical area as their family of origin. Mobility creates a sense of isolation, because when you leave an established community, you end up flailing for a period of time before you are able to find a new one. I left a very rich and active friend group when I moved to Philadelphia, one where everyone at the local spot knew your name and you could always find a companion, to a major city where I knew a sparse handful of people. Even though I was engaged in graduate school, I did not expect that our cohort would be a slice of our day, and most people’s lives existed in their already developed communities. It was excruciating for the first year or so to feel so lonely and isolated, until I went out on a limb to put myself out there to form connections and eventually, a community.
While for decades we only had a couple of ways to remain in touch, by mail or by phone if we were lucky, we now have dozens of apps and ways to remain in contact with one another. However, even though we are able to connect through time and space more easily, the quality of the communication has not caught up with the volume of contact we can create. The quality has been distilled down so much that we don’t even have to comment on one another’s Instagram stories any longer, we can tap a reaction instead. Before that, a whole new vocabulary of abbreviations was born so that we could type faster and more prolifically in Instant Messager. The quality of our communication lowering has an impact on how connected we feel in a larger sense.
Even though social media has made it easier than ever to stay in touch, it is the contemporary version of the promises of remaining in contact after summer camp. The letters may be rich and thorough in the fall, but by winter, they have lessened, if not stopped entirely, as the shared milieu fades into memory. Staying in touch with people from afar is possible if all parties are invested in taking the time to craft thoughtful messages and stay invested in each other’s’ lives, and a few friendships in my life have been able to persist through space and time, but sometimes, social media only taunts the absence of the people you wish to have in your life. It can be difficult to see a community you left behind spending time without you, or wondering why someone isn’t messaging you back. In a way, the ease of communication exacerbates the pain from the natural loss and sea changes of relationships over time. Your social network changes as you move through phases of life, jobs, grades in school, and geographic locations, and when we can still see the life we left behind, it extends the grief process of moving on, exacerbating loneliness.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Reach out: This one seems simple, and yet, it is the most essential. If we want to solve the Loneliness Epidemic, it means we have to be vulnerable at times and reach out to others, even when it may not be convenient, or we are worried that they might not care to see us or make plans together.
2. Make it count: When you do reach out, especially via social media, make sure you’re really trying to form a meaningful connection. If the quick zips back and forth aren’t for you, set time aside to remain connected to friends and loved ones from afar. Each type can be valuable — I have friends with whom I remain in touch through quick check-ins, those with whom I email to stay in touch weekly, and those with whom I have catch-up phone calls once a year or so. All of those modes are important to me, and I make sure to invest in each of them.
3. Anything helps: Every comment or text cannot be a sweeping expression of affection and care, but something is better than nothing. Don’t feel ashamed if you feel like it’s been too long and they’re annoyed that they haven’t heard from you. Say something, anything, even just a simple hi!
4. Keep your eyes peeled: Look for signs that people around you are struggling. If you’re noticing that someone seems more frequently sullen, struggling to make social connection, or slipping into depression, reach out and offer support.
5. Take it out of the cloud: Prioritize spending time in person with your loved ones, as much as it is geographically and logistically possible. Hug each other, if that feels good to you! Physical connection and touch are essential parts of the human experience.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a skill, I firmly believe that distress tolerance is one of the most universally applicable strengths people can have, and I try to develop with my clients. When we feel overwhelmed, angry, anxious, depressed, or fatigued, we experience an urge to eliminate whatever is causing the stress to “make it go away.” However, at various moments, we need to be able to tolerate those emotions and push through for a greater goal. Some examples of this are obvious, like muscle fatigue while running a marathon, but others are more subtle. When we feel overwhelmed in this way, particularly emotionally, we tend to turn to behaviors to self-soothe, as we believe that we need to intervene in our emotional cycle to bring relief. In fact, our emotions have evolved for thousands of years to bring us back to stasis, and we do not need food, substances, or other behaviors to bring an artificial sense of relief. If we were all able to tolerate and metabolize our emotions without external aid, we would potentially be more open to seeing the needs of others and offer them support in those moments.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Ina Garten! She left a lucrative, successful career to pursue her passion, jumping in head-first to purchasing her bakery in the Hamptons. She was able to figure it out along the way, and encourages a lifestyle of slowing down and inviting others to share life’s moments with one another. Food, and communing over food, is a universal phenomenon, and if we all took a cue from her, we would remember the importance of connection at regular intervals and for special occasions, as well as the necessity of investing love and care into what we offer those around us. She also helped inspire my life-long passion for baking and cooking.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me, my writing, and my various creative endeavors on Instagram @rebeccanewmansown!
Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!
“5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic”, with Rebecca Newman was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.