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COVID-19 Blew Up an 'Epidemic of Loneliness'

Isolation can also be deadly, but we have ways to mitigate its effects.

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Solitude and loneliness aren't the same. You can be alone but not lonely. Loneliness thrives on social isolation.
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By the time my friend Doug called me Sunday evening, I felt ready to burst. “I’m dying of loneliness!” I said to him.

I had spent the entire weekend alone, not feeling strongly compelled to call anyone and not hearing from anyone, either. I had hiked and even watched a beautiful sunset over Long Island Sound, by myself.

It’s not a new or unfamiliar experience. I live alone and the nature of my work requires me to spend a lot of time by myself. I enjoy and need my solitude. But this was different. It wasn’t about solitude per se. It was about a lack of companionship with others who know me well and with whom I share a mutual enjoyment of one another’s company.

Even before the virus shut down most aspects of “normal” life, I could identify with the 58 percent of Americans who studies find sometimes or always feel like no one knows them well, and the 49 percent who say they sometimes or always feel as though they lack companionship.

I was astonished while researching this post to find that not only was I not alone in my feeling, but that there is a shockingly high rate of loneliness in the United States. It has actually been described as an “epidemic of loneliness” and declared a public health threat. And it affects people of every age.

Studies find that 65 percent of millennials (born 1982-1999) and members of Generation Z (born 1997-2012) report sometimes or always feeling lonely. Ditto for 50 percent of Generation X (born 1961-1981) and 44 percent of Baby boomers (born 1946-1964). The COVID-19 pandemic has heaped on even more loneliness, with 34 percent of millennials saying it has made them always or often feel more lonely. The same goes for 27 percent of Gen Z, 22 percent of Gen X, and 20 percent of the boomers.

We can only imagine how profoundly the pandemic has reinforced loneliness among elders, kept isolated from loved ones at best, highly vulnerable to the virus yet unable to receive the reassuring physical presence of loved ones that they count on even under far less frightening and isolating circumstances.

What is loneliness?

“Loneliness,” says Canadian pharmacist and Healthy Living Tribe blogger Michelle Fyfe, “is a feeling that you have no one to connect with, on a personal level, who understands you and really SEES you. You feel isolated and disconnected.” It’s a negative emotional response to perceived isolation, a kind of social pain.

Fyfe explains that loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. “Solitude is being alone, but you aren’t feeling lonely,” she says. “You feel peace, you are enjoying your company. It is a sense of privacy and seclusion. Many of us, myself included, need some solitude on a daily basis for our mental well-being.”

John Cacioppo, an expert on loneliness and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, stresses its tremendous impact on psychological and physical health and longevity. Sarah Pressman of the University of California, Irvine, underscores Cacioppo’s work in her research demonstrating that loneliness can actually cut the lifespan by 70 percent—compared to obesity (20 percent) and smoking (50 percent). Loneliness can reduce our ability to manage stress, make us fatigued, and affect our sleep quality and concentration. It’s also a contributing factor in drug and alcohol use and abuse.

What causes loneliness?

Social isolation is a major driver of loneliness. Many of us—particularly those who live alone—have experienced all-new levels of social isolation during the pandemic as we’ve been forced to shelter in place and socially distance ourselves even when we do visit family and friends in person. I am sure I’m not the only one feeling dismayed by the idea of Zoom Thanksgiving dinners, or uninterested in “virtual” happy hours and sing-alongs.

Loneliness is a subjective experience. Feelings of loneliness can come and go, or be triggered by particular circumstances. Social isolation requires deliberate effort to fix. Importantly, it turns out that the best way to prevent and heal from the effects of loneliness and social isolation is to develop and summon our resilience. The benefits are tremendous, including strengthening our immune system, lengthening our life, and lowering our rates of anxiety and depression.

How can we prevent or mitigate loneliness?

The first thing to do is to distinguish between healthy solitude vs. social isolation. Spending quality time by ourselves is a good thing for any of us to do. It can reenergize us, help us to think deeply about something important, let us know ourselves better, and understand what we really feel inside. Social isolation, on the other hand, is about the quantity and quality of our social interactions. This is why it's possible to feel lonely while in a crowd if we aren't feeling socially connected to them.

To address the social isolation that may be driving our feelings of loneliness, there are concrete actions we can take to reduce our isolation and mitigate the impact of the loneliness that so often accompanies it. Jeanna Smiley offers excellent suggestions in her post, “How to Deal with Loneliness and Isolation,” including:

  • Acknowledge that you feel lonely. It’s the critical first step toward dealing with the feeling.
  • Think about your emotions. Try to pinpoint when and what might have triggered your feelings of loneliness.
  • Focus on others’ needs and feelings. This provides relief from the weight of your own problems and self-defeating self-talk.
  • Cultivate a grateful attitude. Accentuate the positives in your life rather than dwelling on the perceived negatives.
  • Initiate dialogue with family, friends, or associates. Ideally in person, by phone if not, and online if all else fails.
  • Take on new skills and subjects. This can boost self-confidence and provide new opportunities to connect with others.
  • Reach out to others. Check on a neighbor or assist a young parent, simple yet powerful ways to give of yourself and reduce lonely times.
  • Consider a counselor or therapist. You may need support in working through the factors that contribute to your feeling lonely.

Another suggestion for alleviating loneliness comes from psychologist Douglas LaBier, who looks at loneliness within the bigger picture of our lives, and encourages us to have “a larger vision of purpose, an aim for your life that connects you with something larger than just your own self,” as he wrote here. “Something that’s meaningful and engages your soul.”

Having a sense of purpose is an important cornerstone of resilience. It's the driving force that can keep us going when the going gets tough. Feeling lonely or socially isolated certainly counts as tough.

But it’s also important to remember that loneliness is part of the “human condition,” a reason the studies find so many of us affected by it. Being resilient offers the emotional and mental health skills we need to pull us through the feelings of loneliness. Framing what we tell ourselves about our loneliness in a compassionate way, rather than beating ourselves up because of it, will set us on the right path to address and ameliorate the isolation that is the likely culprit.

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