Loneliness is so widespread that it has been called a national epidemic — and that was before the pandemic hit. A 2018 survey of 20,000 adults found that almost half of them reported “sometimes or always” feeling alone. Then the novel Coronavirus hit, when more people are living alone than ever before — over a quarter of the US population, according to the US Census. Nearly half of Millennials and Gen Z say they often feel isolated even when with virtual or even real friends.
Even before social distancing, a few factors were driving these feelings of isolation: our mobile population, the decline of community activities like clubs or church and the rise of social media. Research shows that despite all the ‘likes’ you may have rolled in, social media’s lack of face-to-face human connection can actually cause us to feel more cut off.
While it is commonly assumed that loneliness is most prevalent in old age, when people are typically more alone, researchers at UC-San Diego discovered something surprising. In a 2018 study, they found that loneliness actually peaks at three ages over the course of a person’s life. One was the late eighties (okay, that part was not so surprising). The other was the mid-fifties—typically the era of the midlife crisis and empty nest. But the third time that loneliness peaked was in the mid-twenties.
Despite all the ‘likes’ you may have rolling in, social media’s lack of face-to-face human connection can actually cause us to feel more
Lead study author Dilip Jeste, MD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC-San Diego, says that in some ways, it makes sense. “The late twenties are a time of major life decisions,” he says, which can be stressful and isolating.
Jodie Eisner, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, agrees, saying that the late twenties is when the people in your circle start to diverge. “While everyone was at similar places during their upbringing, the late twenties is a time of career growth, partnering up, going back to school, and moving,” she says. “Friends’ lives take different courses—which makes people reflect upon what’s missing in their own lives. And the friends they relied on may not be as available to them anymore.”
It is important to define here that loneliness is not about social isolation. An introvert can be perfectly content with solitude, while someone else can be out at a bar surrounded by friends and still feel lonely.
Experts say feelings of loneliness is your body’s alarm bell to signify that you need to seek out other humans. If you think you might be feeling lonely, it is good to get a handle on it—because research shows that it can change our brains and our bodies. Loneliness has been linked to a boatload of mental and physical problems, from substance abuse to sleep disorders. It messes with our immune systems. A 2017 Brigham Young University study found that lack of social connection bears a health risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.
How do you know if you are experiencing chronic loneliness? Some of the symptoms are overwhelming feelings of isolation, even if you are surrounded by people, feeling like you may have acquaintances but not real friends or people who truly “get” you, a lack of energy and motivation to do anything social, and that “me” time alone does not feel liberating—it feels painful.
Then Take Some Steps
First, acknowledge that you feel lonely and accept your need for human connection—without shame or self-judgment, says Eisner. “Instead, view loneliness as a valuable signal about what’s going on in your life,” she says. Keep a diary to zero in on when you are feeling most cut off, so you can be more aware of when it strikes and take steps to stop it.
Reach out to the people you trust, tell them how you feel, and do what you can to strengthen those bonds. Pick up the phone and give a friend or relative a call, which is more intimate than a text—the humble phone call, after declining in popularity for years, has made a huge comeback this year (AT&T reports that their cell phone calls are up 35 percent!)
Remind yourself that it is more about the quality of your relationships than that quantity. (As the old saying goes, “if you have one true friend, you have more than your share.”)
Try and be aware of what psychologists call maladaptive thinking patterns. If a friend is not keeping in touch, a lonely person may assume it is a rejection, while it may be that she is just been buried under a lot of work. “If you’re thinking, ‘no one wants to hang out with me,’ challenge these extreme and rigid thoughts by looking for evidence to suggest otherwise,” says Eisner.
Depriving yourself of rest can also amp up negative feelings, so get some sleep. A 2017 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found an association between loneliness and poor sleep quality among young adults.
There are a few easy ways to widen your circle. Join free online support groups for loneliness like 7 Cups of Tea or Wisdo. Ask a trusted friend to introduce you to some of her friends that she thinks you would vibe with and join their Zoom cocktail party. Shared interests lead to new connections, and many groups have moved online in response to the pandemic. Join a virtual book club, enroll in a plant-care workshop, take a fitness class (the Alvin Ailey Extension offers amazing free dance classes).
And try to limit your time on social media to 30 minutes a day, which experts recommend for maximum wellbeing. Instead, strive to have any sort of human interaction, however brief.
Finally, a surefire way to eradicate feeling left out is to take care of someone or something else, which surrounds you with like-minded people and makes you feel a sense of belonging and purpose. Opportunities abound to volunteer virtually in quarantine. VolunteerMatch offers volunteer opportunities everywhere in the country, from tutoring kids online to reading to hospital patients. In-person, you can do a community cleanup, work at a food bank or help out in a pet shelter. It is pretty hard to feel as lonely when there is a wriggling puppy in your lap.
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