- Society's focus on individuality and communicating via social media may have caused a rise in loneliness.
- Social isolation can harm overall health by leading to a higher risk of heart disease and substance use.
- Providers should create a welcoming environment to promote healing through a deep, clinical relationship.
By Erin O'Neil LCSW
March 2023 marked the third anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which isolation and loneliness dominated our experiences. However, loneliness was an epidemic all on its own, independent from the precipitating factors of COVID, and existed well before its onset. While most people tend to experience moments of loneliness throughout their lives, we are seeing more and more individuals experiencing extended periods of loneliness. And this to the point of impacting physical and mental health.
All over, loneliness is appearing in news headlines and as the topic of many healthcare industry discussions. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, has proposed a national framework for rebuilding social connection and community in America. This Psychology Today post also shares that loneliness may be tied to emotional regulation and social identity.
Why Do We Feel So Lonely?
Loneliness occurs when our inherent drive for connection is not met. From a clinical standpoint, connection represents the feelings and experiences associated with a sense of belonging that comes from attunement. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Founder of the Mindsight Institute and author, defines attunement as “feeling felt.” In his newest book, Intraconnected, Siegel observes the value our society places on independence and individuality rather than connection and this is evident in research. Young adults aged 18 to 24 are more likely to report feelings of loneliness than seniors (79 percent compared with 41 percent).
Since 2012, studies reveal that adolescent loneliness has gradually increased in conjunction with smartphone access and internet use. While this correlation is still being examined, some experts have argued that primarily relying on communication via social media impacts a person’s face-to-face interactions, making it difficult to develop deep, personal relationships with family, friends, and other people. Social media and internet use may lead to cyberbullying and feelings of exclusion, which can in turn increase feelings of isolation, regardless of how present we may seem to be on some of these platforms.
However, young people aren’t the only ones experiencing loneliness at such high rates. People from underrepresented racial groups are more likely to experience loneliness as do those with lower incomes. Caregivers report loneliness at a rate of about 65 percent compared with non-parents (55 percent). Over half of the U.S. population (58 percent) can be classified as lonely. Despite how much more connected we may now seem, we are actually lonelier than ever.
How Loneliness Can Impact Our Physical and Mental Health
The implications of loneliness on our populations’ mental and physical health are devastating. Our brain is geared toward connection as a survival response. We need it like we do food and sleep. Loneliness and social isolation are a threat to our sense of safety, registering as such to the parts of our brain wired for survival.
A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness also increases our stress hormones, which can lead to physical inflammation and a greater risk of arthritis and diabetes. The impact of stress on those with chronic pain and/or autoimmune diseases is well documented. To bring it full circle, those adults with physical health concerns report being 50 percent lonelier than those with strong health.
Aside from physical ailments, increased periods of loneliness can affect us psychologically by causing and intensifying depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress injury, self-harm, and suicidality. Moreover, substance abuse and loneliness can form a toxic cycle, with each feeding into and exacerbating the other. Individuals struggling with addiction are more likely to experience feelings of loneliness, which can increase use. Conversely, loneliness can be a contributing factor in the development of substance use, misuse, and addiction.
What Healthcare Providers Can Do to Help
So, what is the antidote to an epidemic of loneliness? While there is no one solution, we can start by incorporating the concept of connection as an integral part of one’s healing process. There are steps that those of us in helping professions can integrate into our care to mitigate loneliness and, (hopefully) some of the symptoms our clients are experiencing as a result:
- Awareness: Referencing Siegel again, it will be very difficult for our clients to "feel felt" or feel a connection to us as practitioners if we are not attuned to ourselves. The first thing we can do is to become aware of our own emotional, physical, and mental states. With this awareness, we can be more present and facilitate attunement to others, the definition of and gateway to authentic connection.
- Model: So many of our clients have experienced attachment injuries and, while they continue to possess the inherent need for secure attachment, it can be hard for our clients to know what it is and to trust it when they have it if they have never experienced it before. As therapists, we are in a unique position to be able to concurrently explore what secure attachment looks like for our clients while also being a secure attachment for our clients. Consistency, reliability, accountability, compassion, and empathy build trust and trust builds these strong relationships necessary for healing and thriving.
- Explore: As part of our clients’ holistic care, we need to be focused on the importance of connection in addition to the specific work we are doing (e.g., trauma healing, emotion regulation, substance use recovery, grief therapy, etc.). Explore resources outside of the office and help identify and work through the obstacles that prevent connection for our clients. Once they experience it, we may be amazed at how large a part their loneliness played in their distress.
To promote healthier, deeper connections in our communities, it will require an understanding of and compassion for how lonely we all are and the impact it is having on our country’s overall health. If nothing else, make your space one of welcome and offer the potential for healing through a close, clinical relationship.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Erin O'Neil is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association-certified clinician, and EMDR consultant in training.
Pasquini, G. (2022, December 12). At least four-in-ten U.S. adults have faced high levels of psychological distress during COVID-19 pandemic. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/12/12/at-least-four-in-ten-u…
Murthy, V. H. (2023, April 30). Surgeon general: We have become a lonely nation. it’s time to fix that. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/30/opinion/loneliness-epidemic-america…
The loneliness epidemic persists: A post-pandemic look at the state of loneliness among U.S. adults. The Cigna Group Newsroom. (n.d.). https://newsroom.thecignagroup.com/loneliness-epidemic-persists-post-pa…
Sweet, J. (2021, July 5). The loneliness pandemic. Harvard Magazine. https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2021/01/feature-the-loneliness-pandemic
Nirmita Panchal, H. S., & 2023, M. (2023, April 25). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. KFF. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-o…
Brody, J. E. (2017, December 11). The surprising effects of loneliness on health. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/well/mind/how-loneliness-affects-our…
Eyal, M., & It, H. W. (2023, April 15). Why self-love is making us lonely. Time. https://time.com/6271915/self-love-loneliness/
Amamzedah, A. (2022, December 26). New research identifies the 2 major causes of loneliness. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-a-new-home/202211/new-r…