This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on May 23, 2020.

On a recent “Hidden Brain” podcast, Shankar Vedantam interviewed former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy about the need for connection. Dr. Murthy is promoting his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, which is especially timely given the fact that so many people are currently experiencing social isolation. I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast and, perhaps, to buy the book. Murthy comes across as a sensitive, intelligent physician who offers an empathetic perspective.

We Need Connections to Others

To state the obvious, the pandemic has created distance between most of us and isolation for many of us. To some degree, it has traumatized nearly all of us. It is important to recognize many people will be seeking ways to heal from the experience. A desire to feel connected is primordial. To have a sense of belonging is on our hierarchy of basic needs. It is also important to healing.

I want to share a short, true story to illustrate the power that connection plays in wellness and healing.

Debra Hobbins was a nurse practitioner who worked with me in our clinic. She had a unique capacity to connect with patients and make them feel they were important. It was genuine; she was a compassionate and empathetic clinician.

Debra and I had a patient, whom I will call “Rachel,” who had developed an opioid addiction. After several years of fighting the addiction, Rachel tried to get help, but the barriers and rules created by treatment centers and the government prevented Rachel from seeking the care she needed. One day, Rachel found her way to our clinic, where Debra became her primary provider.

Since we were treating Rachel with Suboxone for an opioid addiction, I was included in Rachel’s treatment team. (This happened at a time before nurse practitioners could prescribe Suboxone for addiction.) However, it was Debra who took the lead role in offering a powerful sense of caring and connection for Rachel.

Debra was uniquely qualified to understand Rachel’s pain, because she had lost her son to a heroin overdose many years earlier. She knew what Rachel needed to begin healing. Debra gave her what no one had given her before: understanding, compassion, and nonjudgmental, unconditional love.

The connection Debra offered Rachel was essential to Rachel’s healing. But there are all sorts of support, and people in pain need various types of help at different times.

Religion and Spirituality Can Help Us Heal

Sometimes, people need help that no human can provide, and they seek healing and comfort from the divine or through spiritual practices.

Researchers are especially interested in how effective religion and spirituality are in helping people deal with their pain. Time and again, studies have shown a correlation between a religious or spiritual orientation and improvement in pain or health, in general. One report summarizes, “In the patients with depression, hopelessness and suicidal intent correlated negatively with the level of religiosity.” In other words, people in pain who are religious or spiritual tend to feel better than those without belief. They are more likely to have “better psychological well-being.”

Seeking Connections During the Pandemic

During the pandemic, for many of us, our sense of isolation is heightened. Some people who typically feel connected to others may have temporarily lost the ability to participate in the everyday activities that provided them with the sense of belonging they need. There are various alternatives, but all forms of connection are not equal. Some options work better for some people than for others.

Those who are lucky enough to be able to participate in video calls may find them inadequate. According to Psychology Today, the technology may leave some people feeling exhausted and depleted rather than satisfied.

Tapping into their faith or joining video conferences may help some people feel connected. But for others, that may barely scratch the surface of their loneliness.

As Murthy points out, a “dark thread of loneliness” can cause physical health problems, including drug abuse. Physical distancing may keep many of us safe from the coronavirus—but without human connections, the richness of life can be elusive.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.




  1. David on May 24, 2020 at 12:41 am

    The questions remains; Was she a genetic hyper-responder and thus a True Addict likely in need of a maintenance dose, or does she simply continually fail to appreciate that she disdains the use/withdrawal, use/arrest, use overdose cycle and the COMPLETING of WITHDRAWALS because it IS BAD for her and for the satisfying of juvenile ideas of what ‘fun’ is?
    Testing? CYP450?? Pharmacogenomics??? We MUST to get the %99.6 abandoned legitimate severe pain sufferers, that will NEVER OUD, back to a sufficient dose.

  2. Mariana Ivanylo on May 24, 2020 at 3:02 am

    I totally agree with your words “ Those who are lucky enough to be able to participate in video calls may find them inadequate. ” Due to cancellations of several conferences I usually attend in spring, I had to listen to presentations virtually instead. This is not the same experience as being physically present in the room with others. I become so spiritually elevated and professionally motivated after live conferences, I cannot say the same about virtual ones because, despite interesting content and dedicated speakers, they become boring and exhausting. There is no live two-way communication, energy exchange which inspires us and recharges live energy. Just wanted to share my view and experience.

  3. David Acevedo on May 24, 2020 at 4:11 am

    Mariana Ivanylo Ick. You are not a “doctor” are you?

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