Loneliness may be the least-discussed health epidemic of the twenty-first century. It's a widespread problem with devastating health ramifications, and for those that suffer from these feelings, you are often told that it's "just in your head"1.
Fortunately, we have good news! It's possible to address loneliness on an individual level. There are ways to confront feeling isolated rather than allowing these feelings to get out of control.
First, let's ask a deceptively simple question. What is it that makes us feel isolated? The world is more populated than ever, and we live in huge, ever-moving societies. How could anyone in this bustling era be isolated? Unfortunately, research shows that many people feel alone.
Many people who report loneliness are not alone. Isolation can creep up on us even when we spend our time surrounded by others. If our relationships lack meaning, then we begin to feel isolated from others and even from ourselves. Loneliness is a state of mind more than a physiological fact2.
Loneliness is far from uncommon. Nearly everyone experiences profound loneliness at least once in their lifetime. For adults over 50, over one-third report feeling chronically isolated and lonely3.
Understanding the prevalence of loneliness is key to overcoming it. There is power in a community. Understand that you are not alone in your loneliness, and seek the advice of others. More and more people are beginning to share their stories. Even a quick search online yields thousands of results and many memoirs of prominent people have several chapters devoted to a period of loneliness. While it is important not to let the accounts of others consume you, understanding that many people out there know what you're going through can be powerful.
Our physical, mental, and cognitive health are all affected by isolation and loneliness. Over time, feelings of loneliness can take a toll on your emotional wellness, leaving you drained, unproductive, and sad. There is a link between loneliness and feelings of depression and anxiety. The two have a symbiotic relationship, feeding off each other and escalating4.
Loneliness's connection to reduced emotional wellness makes it a risk factor for all the devastating effects of feeling depressed, including fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, physical and emotional pains. It is essential to take these risks seriously and treat loneliness with the gravity it requires. It's vital to take care of our minds and emotions as much as we take care of our bodies5.
No one benefits from feeling isolated. If left unaddressed, loneliness only becomes harder to overcome. It is wrong to assume loneliness will subside on its own. Such feelings are powerful and can take a deep hold within the psyche. You must take charge of your aloneness and take the necessary steps to work through it.
The first step is recognizing how you feel. Loneliness and perceived isolation are subjective feelings, so only you can decide how lonely you feel. Loneliness occurs when the level of social support and interaction you receive is lower than what you need. In other words, you are lonely if you think you are.
If you find yourself in a state of loneliness, make a note of it. Keep track of how long you feel this way. If the feelings of isolation do not subside quickly, then you should address it without hesitation.*
Loneliness feeds off our insecurities. It's all too easy to fall prey to the empty trap of isolating ourselves out of a fear of rejection by estranged friends and colleagues. Sometimes you feel so sure that the reason you haven't heard from your friends in so long is that there's something wrong with you.
The first step to fighting loneliness is to break free of this thought cycle. Because in all likelihood, it isn't you. Life has a way of pulling on our relationships, sometimes tugging close friends or family away from us. In these cases, you have to brave that first step. So go ahead and invite a long-lost friend out for coffee, there's a good chance they're feeling as lonely as you are.
Of course, not all of us drift so slowly into isolation. For some, loneliness is borne of very tangible losses. Many people find themselves alone after the death of a partner or separation from family. In these cases, you can still fight back against the loneliness.
Charity and volunteer work can be immensely satisfying. The opportunity to help people and get involved can work wonders on perceived isolation. With community involvement, there's a sense of connection; it's right there in the name, community.
Non-profit organizations are always looking for community members to help them flourish. Volunteering at a non-profit is a great way to connect and make new friends. It's also an opportunity to learn a new skill set - Volunteer work doesn't have to mean ladling soup on a Saturday evening. You can volunteer to run marketing campaigns, produce web copy, and even manage finances.
Loneliness can drain you of your sense of purpose, but putting yourself out there and getting involved can help you regain that lost meaning.
(1) Brody J (2017 Dec). The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health
(2) Lardieri A (2018 May). Study: Many Americans Report Feeling Lonely, Younger Generations More So
(3) Doheny K (2019 Mar). Survey: 1 in 3 Older Adults Feel Lonely
(4) Erzen E, Çikrikci Ö (2018 May). The effect of loneliness on depression
(5) Winch G (2014 Nov). Why we all need to practice emotional first aid (TED Talk)