The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons. Some of us have learned the beauty of stillness and cultivated a sense of gratitude for what was there all along, and – if Instagram is any indication – many of us have perfected the art of banana bread, sourdough, and crispy, roast chicken.
But if there's one lesson that became undoubtedly clear in the collective, global experience of the pandemic, it’s that humans are far better together than alone.
We need each other.
We saw this as neighbors sang together on balconies in Italy and as we heard the 7pm clapping in honor of frontline workers. We watched organizations donate funds where they were needed most and saw people band together to help one another out, even if they were strangers.
But as the pandemic raged on, tearing its way across the globe, we were faced with social and physical distancing orders, travel restrictions, job loss, and an economic recession.
Despite our best efforts to be “together apart” by leveraging technology and socially distanced outdoor activities, we’ve been kept from seeing our loved ones, interacting with our coworkers, and feeling human touch. We’ve been distanced physically, emotionally, and psychologically from one another.
Loneliness: An emerging health crisis
Pandemic-caused isolation, grief, fear, and anxiety have shone a light on the profound impact of loneliness. According to a Cigna study, more than three in five Americans are lonely, reporting they feel left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.
Historically, loneliness has been thought to impact older populations more profoundly, but new research shows, like the pandemic, loneliness knows no borders. Immunity doesn’t exist. In fact, Generation Z surprisingly had the highest loneliness score.
Studies like this imply the complexities around modern-day loneliness as it is not simply about being physically distanced from others; it’s an emotional and physiological state that can be unique to each of us.
There is no doubt the pandemic has intensified loneliness and made it even more widespread, but it’s also a case of hindsight literally being 20/20. The exponential growth in loneliness we saw in 2020 brought an existing public health crisis bubbling to the surface.
Loneliness has been on the rise for years, but we’re finally seeing the severe impact it can have on physical, mental, and emotional health. The resolve for ourselves and our collective communities is a worthwhile pursuit.
There’s no bandage for loneliness. There is no antibiotic or vaccine, and green juice won’t detox it from our lives. So what can we do to prevent loneliness from continuing its exponential evolution and disruption?
Like any public health issue, we need to understand loneliness: what it is, why it exists, how it impacts us, and what we can do to manage or eradicate our own loneliness.
What is loneliness? Acute vs. chronic loneliness
In his book Together, former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy describes loneliness as your body sending you a signal it needs something – similar to hunger or thirst. Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has made his career studying loneliness, confirms this notion: “The absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst, and physical pain.”
While loneliness can take many forms and is subjective, the connection to hunger and thirst embodies the visceral feeling so many of us have experienced. Chances are you’ve felt lonely at some point in your life. For many of us, loneliness comes and goes and is temporary. This type of often circumstantial loneliness is called acute loneliness.
But for others, feelings of loneliness are chronic and not always triggered by a specific event. Chronic loneliness goes on for long periods and, according to Cigna, is an unrelenting feeling of separation and the inability to connect on a deeper level. Chronic loneliness can also be related to feelings of lack of self-worth and low self-esteem.
Loneliness can be caused or triggered by a number of things:
- Change (of location or a job)
- Loss and grief
- Anxiety and depression
- Lack of social interaction and meaningful connections
- Ending an important relationship
- Low self-esteem
Signs you might be feeling lonely
Many of us can relate to the most obvious symptoms of loneliness – feeling like something is lacking or a gnawing feeling of emptiness. But sometimes the feelings that accompany loneliness aren’t so obvious, as they can be conflated with other mental, physical, and emotional ailments.
Some less obvious symptoms of loneliness include:
- Decreased appetite
- Lack of self-esteem and self-worth
- Weakened immune system
- Increased anxiety or restlessness
- Cravings for safety and warmth
- Desire to engage in activities to block emotions, such as shopping or binge-watching
The impact of loneliness on our well-being
When we think about the correlation between loneliness and health, the first thing that comes to mind is mental health. There is a clear connection between our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and common mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. However, the impact of loneliness is far-reaching and can have major impacts on our physical health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), loneliness can increase risk of premature death from a variety of causes at a rate greater than smoking or obesity. Loneliness can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure, and inflammation.
Additionally, chronic loneliness can lead us to other detrimental habits, like substance abuse and addiction.
Why is loneliness on the rise?
Despite living in a world where we have the ability to travel anywhere with a click of a button and technologies that allow us to feel like we’re in the same room as relatives 5,000 miles away, we are more disconnected than ever.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, our increased mobility has caused us to leave our original communities that provided us with safety, comfort, and support. Historically, people lived in tight-knit communities where they relied on one another to complete tasks and make it through life’s greatest hardships. Even child-rearing relied on a community structure. This sense of community could also be found in the workplace.
As we move away from traditional communities and see increased home-based work, this once-relied-upon support system has been lost. Due to the nature of mobility and relationship development, it can be difficult to rebuild these communities. This leaves us feeling like we’re alone in our experiences.
Additionally, there’s no doubt we live in a fast-paced, always-on culture with an individualistic view. In this type of culture, successes and failures are ours alone. While there can be motivating aspects to this mind-set, it can also weigh heavily on a person when there is no one to share in the burden or joy. We’ve forgotten the important role of relational communication in our holistic well-being.
Finally, even though modern technology has provided a life-changing mechanism of connection and enabled us with so many positive advances, it’s made us even more disconnected. We spend hours plugged into our phones and the realities of people we don’t even know. According to NPR, “Social media use was tied to loneliness as well, with 73% of very heavy social media users considered lonely, as compared with 52% of light users.”
What to do when you feel lonely
Loneliness is painful.
It is described well in the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. “Have you ever felt like you could diappear? Like you could fall and no one would hear?”
While there may be no way to entirely eliminate feelings of loneliness, we can take actions to quell these feelings today and prevent them in the future.
Incorporate mindfulness and identify triggers. Recognize your loneliness triggers and your emotions when feeling lonely. Identify the emotions, accept they are there, and then determine a game plan for overcoming them.
Know you’re not alone. It can be difficult to feel you’re the only one challenged by loneliness. When social media is full of highlight reels, people are less likely to talk about what is wrong in their lives. Remembering there are many people around the world who share your feelings can bring solace.
Disconnect to reconnect. If social media is triggering for you, set time limits on your apps or do a social media detox to delete them for a set period.
Commit to people and relationships. It can be easy to get caught in the trap of going at it all alone, especially in our culture. But when you mindfully make an effort to put relationships first, the outcomes can be beneficial. Make plans with friends so you have something to look forward to or try volunteering to make new meaningful connections. If you can’t meet in person, try to set up a video call with a loved one.
Connect to yourself. It is not true that you can’t connect to others without loving yourself entirely first, but there is something to be said about feeling comfortable with yourself and doing things that fill you up. Find ways to connect with the things you love about yourself. You’ll find a sense of comfort in being alone that can make your relational connections even stronger.
Engage in exercise and be in nature. Both exercise and sunlight have positive effects on the body and our levels of serotonin, the happiness hormone. Serotonin can increase feelings of happiness, joy, and overall well-being.
Seek support. If your loneliness feels relentless, seek support from a professional who can help you create a personalized plan for combatting your loneliness. You deserve joy and inner peace, and there is no shame in finding help to get there.
The feeling of loneliness is deeply felt. It is physical. It is emotional. It is visceral. But by taking a more mindful approach, we can combat loneliness together and, as they say in Dear Evan Hansen, “let that lonely feeling wash away.”
For more information on taking care of your emotional and mental health, check out the Mental Health section of the IIN blog. Share an interesting article with a friend or loved one to kick-start your efforts to strengthen your connections.