I recently surveyed a psychiatrist and asked what the most common issue was her patients brought up. She quickly answered loneliness and isolation. Loneliness and isolation are prevalent in our society. It is Mental Health Awareness Month and in the UK, the focus is loneliness.
A study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reveals that more than one-third of American adults 45 and older feel lonely. And worse, nearly one-fourth of the population 65 and older are socially isolated.1
Social isolation is known to have a detrimental effect on health. Those socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely, have dementia, have a greater risk of heart attack and stroke, and suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicide. Similar health concerns arise from an experience of chronic loneliness. Studies show that the effects of social isolation are similar to those of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care, and lack of physical activity.5
There is a distinction between loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness is an uncomfortable feeling of separation or aloneness, a state of mind characterized by feeling unwanted, empty, and cut off from other human beings.3 Social isolation is a lack of social connectedness and few people to interact with regularly.2 The concepts overlap, referring to different parts of the anatomy of the same detriment.
COVID-19 has caused many to come face to face with both social isolation and loneliness. A CDC study found that loneliness spiked severely during the pandemic, especially among those 18 to 25.3 Overall, loneliness increased across the globe. Studies found that the leading predictor of anxiety or depression is loneliness. However, this is closely followed by the individual’s tolerance of uncertainty.4 The pandemic provided an unprecedented amount of uncertainty and continues to do so.
The issue of perceived isolation is widespread. Finding a successful intervention is proving difficult. Research shows that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) works because it empowers individuals to change negative, self-defeating thoughts on self-worth and how others may see them.5 In older adults, studies show that joining a social group decreases the experience of loneliness. Additionally, the study shows that joining more than one social group is almost twice as effective in reducing the risk of death.
Governments are taking up the challenge of addressing loneliness. In New Jersey,
Gov. Phil Murphy signed initiatives including a requirement that long-term care facilities, as a condition of licensure, institute policies that prevent the social isolation of residents.6 In Ohio, House Bill 123 was recently signed, helping to define social isolation and promote social inclusion within schools.
Many who need intervention and may seek it out do not have access. As of March 2022, more than 35 million Americans in rural communities did not have access to mental health resources.7
Categories of interventions include social prescribing (facilitated joining of groups) or group membership, CBT and mindfulness training, pharmaceutical interventions, targeting social detriments of health broadly (holistic medicine integrations), targeting specific risk factors (IE hearing loss), and interventions that address isolation in the healthcare system.8
Loneliness can occur without isolation. Relationship loneliness is pervasive in codependent relationships that lack intimacy.9 Much of the workforce is now working from home, causing a rise in loneliness.10 Often, feelings of loneliness stem from a feeling that one is not deserving of love from others and not worthy of time or attention.12 This can be experienced even when in close proximity to loved ones. In short, the individual’s perception is a reality for the individual.
Loneliness can also be contagious. Spending time with that reporting being lonely has been shown to promote the feeling in those not initially having the experience.
Like many emotions, scientists are beginning to understand that loneliness is a “biological hunger signal.”12 Meaning it is our body’s way of telling us we need social activity. In our evolutionary history, this was often a question of survival. This may be why the feeling of loneliness is so powerful. Just as powerful as our desire to eat.
Loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to your health. It is a drive just as strong as hunger. Without social connection, our souls starve. It is something we all deal with to some degree. Beyond this topic, I have come to the hypothesis that we are minds attempting to manage our bodies. Health is experienced when they are aligned. When negative feelings or illnesses arise, it is the result of misalignment. Isolation and loneliness are symptoms of a specific misalignment.
Perhaps more important than realizing that this is happening in ourselves is realizing that this is happening (maybe even to a greater degree) in others. This could be the root of behavior in which the cause is not immediately understood. For example, angry outbursts, toxic social media activity, gossiping, etc.
And so this is evidence for the social media trope: “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
Who do you know that may be lonely?
How can you reach out a provide a connection to them and for yourself?
Why is the person you know who always behaves toxically really acting that way?
Often when those we know are behaving in ways that push us away is when they are in the most need of connecting with us.
Watch the video below with some great and simple tips on what to do when YOU feel lonely.