You have probably heard the phrase that loneliness is an epidemic. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, this word might sound like an exaggeration. However, loneliness has reached epic proportions, likely soaring even higher in 2020 than before.
Loneliness is associated with a range of serious mental health and physical health challenges.
What is Loneliness?
We have probably all experienced a sense of loneliness at one time or another in our lives. We know it when we feel it. But how do we define it?
Loneliness is not simply the state of being alone. It is sadness resulting from feeling alone, whether or not you are physically around other people at the time.
Loneliness can result from not understanding, and not attending to, our needs for social connection. It can also result from a feeling that we are not understood, cared about, important, or “seen” in our relationships.
Loneliness is a Widespread Problem
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that more than 300 million people around the world live with depression. In his book Lost Connections, author Johann Hari argues that nearly all instances of depression are actually due to loneliness. While that may be a debatable point, it hints at the fact that loneliness, like depression, is widespread.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 20% of people feel lonely and 40% of people say that their social connections don’t feel strong enough.
This is not something to be taken lightly. Loneliness is associated with a number of serious health consequences. In fact, people suffering from loneliness are more than 30% likely to die early than their less-lonely peers.
Other negative effects of loneliness include heart health issues, insomnia, negative coping behaviors, reduced productivity, lessened creativity and cognitive decline. People with loneliness may even experience more severe symptoms of regular illnesses like the common cold.
When Did Loneliness Become an Epidemic?
The word “epidemic” refers to a condition that affects a large, and growing, percentage of the population of a specific area.
We’ve heard for a few years now that loneliness is becoming an epidemic. Of course, that’s hard to measure, so there is some controversy around this. While one study showed that loneliness rates have double in America in the past five decades, other research suggests that rates haven’t measurably increased. It’s challenging to define loneliness in a measurable way. Therefore, it’s hard to create and compare statistics.
Moreover, there’s no specific definition for when something becomes an epidemic. In other words, there is no set number of affected people that must count as lonely to be the tipping point that makes it an epidemic.
Of course, in 2020, we hear the word “pandemic” a lot. The difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is that an epidemic affects a particular region whereas a pandemic has a global reach. Is loneliness a pandemic or could it become one? Research will have to bear that out.
And speaking of 2020, the effects of the coronavirus might be such that loneliness has increased this year. Sheltering in place, working and going to school from home, and not having close physical contact (such as hugs) with your friends can all contribute to loneliness. Here are some tips for finding connection while social distancing.
Fear of Loneliness and Other Related Anxiety Disorders
Loneliness is a state of being, not a mental health condition. However, loneliness is linked with mental health conditions. As aforementioned, there are strong indications that loneliness causes depression.
Loneliness is also linked with anxiety. People often have a fear of loneliness. They don’t want to be lonely, so when they start to feel lonely, it triggers anxiety. They may get panic attacks or separation anxiety. Fear of loneliness can be its own phobia.
To be clear, loneliness itself is not a mental health condition. It’s an emotional state. However, it may be linked with certain mental health conditions. And it is treatable despite the fact that it’s not a mental illness.
How to Cope with Loneliness
So, what can you do to combat it or cope with it in your own life? First and foremost, nurture your existing relationships. Make it a point to connect with the people in your life on a regular basis, if not in person than via video chat, handwritten letters, and other means of communication. Aim for authentic, deep, vulnerable conversations whenever possible.
Next, build up your base of other friendships and connections. Join online or offline groups to meet and connect with others. Find a way to volunteer in your community. Make it a point to chat with your rideshare driver and get to know the name of the cashier at your local grocery store. In other words, strengthen your connections with your community in ways both big and small.
You can also brainstorm the activities that you do enjoy doing alone. Then work to incorporate those into your daily life. Taking a candle-lit bath, reading a novel, making art, dancing to your favorite song, and going for long bike rides are all examples of things that you can do alone but not feel lonely.
One study suggests that the best loneliness antidote is to cultivate wisdom as defined by six traits:
- Accepting diverse viewpoints as well as uncertainty in life
- Engaging in a spiritual practice
- Honing decision-making skills
- Mastering control over one’s own emotions
- Practicing compassion
- Practicing self-reflection.
Therapy is one place where you can cultivate those skills. You might think it’s strange to consult a therapist for feelings of loneliness. However, it’s not strange at all. The therapeutic relationship can help you overcome feelings of loneliness. Therapy can assist you in building your support structure and shoring up your internal resources to better cope with loneliness. Make an appointment today to work with one of our therapists.