Right now there is another pandemic brewing in the wake of COVID-19. I’m talking about loneliness, triggered by factors including social isolation, working from home, and feelings of disconnection. The result is a significant adverse impact on mental health and overall wellbeing.
Loneliness is perceived social isolation, the gap between perceived need for social connections and your lived reality. One of the great tragedies about loneliness is just how common it has become with more people than ever feeling disconnected and isolated. Even before the pandemic began, research found that more than twenty per cent of people often feel lonely or left out. These days the numbers are surely much higher.
Being alone versus being lonely
There has been a threefold increase in the number of people who state they lack close friends since 1985. This is at least partly because of the impact of the internet and social media. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely; you may choose to spend time alone, but you don’t choose to be lonely. Some of the happiest and most fulfilled people on the planet spend considerable time alone and won’t consider themselves to be lonely for one second. Being alone can be a wonderful opportunity to disconnect from distractions, to reflect, relax and recharge.
As a universal human emotion, experiencing temporary loneliness from time to time is part and parcel of being human
Loneliness, on the other hand, can cause you to feel empty, alone and unwanted. It is really a negative state of mind: an emotional response to the perception of being alone, excluded and apart from the crowd.
As a universal human emotion, experiencing temporary loneliness from time to time is part and parcel of being human. Causes can include loss, whether from bereavement, relationship breakdown, or the very real loss of connection experienced by so many with the COVID-19 restrictions. Loneliness may of course be a symptom of a mental health issue such as depression, low self-esteem and self-confidence or simply due to a lack of authentic relationships.
Described by Mother Teresa as the most terrible poverty, chronic loneliness can have a wide range of adverse effects on your emotional, mental and physical health. This impact of loneliness on wellbeing has been described in detail in the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by the psychologist John T Cacioppo.
Loneliness is a hidden killer and can increase the risk of premature death. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the saying goes, but it can also make the heart weaker.
Quality relationships are integral to your wellbeing; if you don’t have them then the health of your heart can suffer and you can fall apart physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Being persistently lonely may have health risks comparable to the health risks from smoking cigarettes, obesity and high blood pressure
Higher levels of circulating stress hormones in your system over many years puts strain on your heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart disease, blood clots and stroke. Being lonely can quite literally cause a broken heart. Higher levels of cumulative wear and tear increase the risk of premature ageing and functional decline, increasing the risk of falls. Being persistently lonely may have health risks comparable to the health risks from smoking cigarettes, obesity and high blood pressure.
Loneliness can trigger feelings of fatigue, increase your sensitivity to pain and can make you less likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle in terms of diet, exercise habits and alcohol consumption. Being lonely can also affect your decision-making, your memory and overall brain health, increasing the risk of dementia. Your sleep quality can be affected in that you feel less refreshed after sleep both physically and psychologically.
Loneliness creates an emotional soundtrack of negativity; this background noise is not only unsettling but can eat away at your emotional happiness and wellbeing. Ironically while people who are lonely often crave human contact, their state of mind can make it more difficult for them to form connections with others.
Research from the University of Chicago has found that feeling lonely triggers hyper vigilance for social threat. Picking up on signs of social rejection and threats more quickly leads to a vicious cycle of withdrawal which intensifies further intensified feelings of isolation.
The result: a downward spiral of doom and gloom can make it even more challenging to reach out and build relationships even though that is what’s most needed.
Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence can result in social withdrawal
One of the great benefits of relationships is their ability to buffer and protect you against the damaging effects of stress. Loneliness increases the levels of negative stress and distress. On the other hand, loneliness can also be a major trigger of mental health conditions such as depression and alcohol dependency. Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence can result in social withdrawal, which can exacerbate loneliness and increase the risk of suicide.
The letter ‘i’ in illness represents isolation, and the crucial letters in wellness are the first two letters ‘we’. Us, together.
Focus on developing quality relationships
A wise man once said to be grateful for your friends, for they are the gardeners that make your soul blossom. Simply being around other people is not enough; rather the quality of the relationship will determine whether or not a person feels lonely. People with meaningful friendships derive higher levels of wellbeing and are healthier and more engaged in their lives. By contrast, the absence of any close friendships increases the likelihood of depression, boredom and loneliness.
Loneliness can be overcome and awareness of its potential effects is a good starting point
If you feel lonely, be aware of these feelings as a sign you may need to strengthen your relationships. Be really clear about what persistent loneliness can mean for your health, happiness and wellbeing.
Furthermore loneliness may be contagious, spreading through your social networks. Some research suggesting that being close to someone experiencing loneliness makes it more likely for you to become lonely as well.
Loneliness can be overcome and awareness of its potential effects is a good starting point.
Prioritise friends and relationships in your life, people with shared interests, values and attitudes
Be the change and reach out to others. Becoming more curious in other people takes you away from lonely feelings. Give others more of your attention and you will get attention in return.
Prioritise friends and relationships in your life, people with shared interests, values and attitudes. Consider volunteering which can be a great way to meet people with a common interest and build a sense of social and community support.
Focus on developing quality relationships. If those efforts aren’t working and especially if you have associated effects on your mental health, consider professional help with your doctor or therapist. Taking action to address your loneliness can make a real difference to your mental, emotional and physical health and overall wellbeing. Consider people in your circle who might benefit from a call or some of your time right now. It might matter more than you think. We are all better together.