At any given moment, at least a third of us feel lonely. As we write this, the social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic has probably pushed that figure higher.
We can take comfort in knowing that loneliness is not a permanent state. There are many ways to address and alleviate / heal loneliness. But first, let’s explore loneliness itself.
The Lonely Facts
The definition of loneliness varies, but it’s generally considered a feeling of being lonely more than once a week, of needing contact with others but having difficulty achieving it. Loneliness can be caused by social isolation, or it can result in isolation. While isolation is a physical state, loneliness is an emotional one.
In a 2017 study of 20,000 American adults of all ages, nearly 50% reported feeling sometimes or always alone. “At least two in five … sometimes or always feel… they lack companionship (43%), that their relationships are not meaningful (43%), that they are isolated from others (43%), and/or that they are no longer close to anyone (39%).”Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index
Loneliness affects our physical health, increasing risk for cognitive decline and poor sleep. It can affect blood pressure, our immune system and inflammation. When we’re feeling lonely, we can slip into physical neglect, eating poorly and not exercising. Loneliness has been judged to have the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. In one large study, people with good social connection actually had a 50% reduced risk of early death.
Loneliness can accompany feelings of low self-esteem and such mental health issues as depression, anxiety, addiction, phobia, PTSD, bipolar disorder or borderline personality. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk for depression, suicide, substance abuse, stress and antisocial behavior.
The risk for loneliness increases with various factors:
- a lack of social connections
- difficult relationships
- onset of disability (such as hearing loss) or financial problems
- major life changes (death of a loved one, divorce, move, retirement)
- trauma, a chaotic home environment, domestic abuse or being bullied
- isolating circumstances, such as single parenting and natural or national emergencies
- being close to someone who’s lonely (you are 52% more likely to feel lonely yourself)
How can we ease loneliness and move toward more satisfying future?
Connect with Yourself
To begin to repair your loneliness, tune into it. Have you felt lonely for a long time? Or just recently? Are your relationships deep or superficial? Are you afraid of revealing parts of yourself to others, even people you’re close to? Have you had a traumatic experience? Ask yourself questions to figure out why you’re lonely.
Care for Yourself
Therapy can help you work through loneliness factors like grief and self-limiting beliefs and behaviors. Therapy is essential if a mental health disorder is involved.
Maintain your physical health. Exercise is particularly important to mental health. It’s known to reduce anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and mitigate social withdrawal. Watch your diet and promote good sleep habits; set a cut-off time for online activities so you can wind down and get ready for sleep.
Connect with Others
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival.”Testimony of Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad before the US Senate Aging Committee, 2017
We are social creatures who crave connection. If you’re lonely because your social network needs rebuilding, maintain and nurture the relationships you already have. Try getting in touch with an old friend, neighbor or coworker. Write a letter to a family member and ask about your family history. Build your connections by expressing interest in the lives of others.
Reach out during your daily interactions as well. Practice small talk with cashiers at the grocery store or service reps on the phone. In a Purdue University study, researchers found that people who simply made eye contact with strangers felt less disconnected.
Remember that it takes time to form new relationships. Start small and set yourself up to see the same people by walking the dog at the same time every day, joining a class, becoming a regular at a coffee shop. Practice going beyond small talk with more probing, but still casual, questions: “What country have you always wanted to visit?”
Care for Others
When you feel lonely you are more likely to be “in your head.” Focusing on the needs of others helps you step outside yourself. If possible, volunteer in your community. Mow the grass for a disabled neighbor. Offer to take soup to a sick friend. It will get you out and give you both a positive interaction for the day.
Stretch Your Wings
Try new things. Be open to new experiences, a new hobby, class or sport. If you pursue things you like, you will probably find like-minded people to connect with. You can start your own group around a special interest with the help of social media.
Make a plan to address your loneliness, on how you can reach out and share more. If you find sharing difficult, therapy can help you discover how to foster closeness and trust with others. Therapy can also help you work on social skills such as starting conversations and picking up on nonverbal communication cues.
Revive and Uplift
Creative outlets are extremely restorative. Drawing, writing or even rearranging and brightening your living space can give you a lift. Music is a great way to connect with yourself and others. If you don’t play, you can listen. If you play, brush up your skills and look for opportunities to play with others.
Go for a walk or a bike ride. Observe and enjoy nature. Do some informal bird watching, or perhaps start a patio garden. Try meditation or mindfulness to calm anxiety. Start a gratitude journal to maintain a positive perspective, and train yourself to expect the best in others.
Dealing with the Social Isolation of COVID-19
We’re all suffering during this anxious time of social isolation as we cope with stay-at-home orders, uncertainty and threats to our physical health. Perhaps we’re grieving our former life in ways we haven’t even recognized.
Fortunately, we can connect through social media, email and online meeting platforms. Phone conversations used to be a great way to connect; they still are. Friends and relatives who are also lonely would probably welcome a call. We can indulge in healthy escapes like music, books or uplifting movies—perhaps using technology to have a watch party with friends.
Animal shelters are reporting record adoption rates as people rediscover the companionship of a dog or a cat. Remember that adopting a pet is a long-term decision but a rewarding one if you’re ready to take on the responsibility.
Paying attention to your mental health is more important right now than ever before. Remember that this is temporary. Life WILL return to normal, and in the meantime, you will have practiced ways to alleviate loneliness that will sustain you later on.
Loneliness is a feeling, not a certainty. Don’t blame yourself for feeling lonely; it happens to all of us. We have a basic human need for connection with others. If you’re feeling lonely too often for comfort, Best Day’s counselors can help you evaluate the situation and take steps to address it.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:
Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543 • Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684 • Raleigh: (919) 670-3939 • Greenville: (252) 375-3322