Loneliness: How to manage the new epidemic
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Asma is a psychotherapist, and Co-Founder at Reflective Conversations. She is also associated...
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Recently, we all went through a globally connected experience. For more than two years, we didn’t go far from our homes. We didn’t meet our friends. We didn’t spend time with extended family members. We didn’t even go out for a drink or a nice dinner.
Even when we did, it was a sanitized experience from a science fiction novel. We spoke louder to be heard through masks, and one hand constantly reached for the sanitizer.
If we were lonely before, the pandemic pushed us further into that dark hole. In 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness an ‘epidemic.’ And just like any other epidemic, the impact is wide and deep.
“Loneliness does have really strong deleterious consequences for the individual in terms of health effects. It’s strongly correlated with stress-related diseases, heart disease, anxiety, risk for stroke or heart attack,” says Matthew Johnson, professor, and researcher of psychology and neuroscience at Hult International Business School.
And he is right. Evidence shows that intense loneliness can cause interrupted sleep, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and other issues.
How many people are lonely?
According to a 2021 survey from Statista, 33% of people worldwide reported feeling lonely.
In India, studies have shown that the prevalence of loneliness is more widespread among the older population. One such study from 2020 points toward factors like the source of income, family structure, marital status, etc., as reasons for loneliness. And as per the 2020 Longitudinal Aging Study in India (LASI), around 23% of the elderly live alone, which can aggravate loneliness.
However, loneliness is not relegated to the elderly. Indian youth are experiencing loneliness too. A 2017 survey of 6000 participants aged between 15 and 37 found that 12% felt depressed and 8% felt lonely.
The pandemic made us feel isolated and, therefore, disconnected from others. But worse, it also fostered a sense of disconnect with oneself.
Paradoxically, this disconnect was perhaps due to having no alone time. We worked, played, ate, and slept, constrained within the walls of our homes. Our spouses, children, parents, or partners were always with us. In a different time, a different world, this would have been a source of much joy. But now we didn’t have commutes, lunches with friends, or colleagues to banter with. We didn’t have a slice of time that we could call ours solely, which forced us to seek it within. We splintered within ourselves, disengaging and disconnecting from ourselves and the people around us.
In other words, we were experiencing acute ‘aloneliness.’
Professor of Psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Robert Coplan, who coined the term, defines aloneliness as “the negative feelings that arise from the perception that one is not spending enough time alone.”
When we only have ‘together time,’ as it happened in the pandemic, we don’t have the space to decompress.
Coping with loneliness is a challenge, but there are many steps you can take that can help ease the pain. Here are a few.
Acknowledge and accept
One of the first steps is to acknowledge that we are lonely. Asma Ansari, psychotherapist and co-founder of Reflective Conversations, suggests staying with these feelings and working through them by addressing them. It always helps to reflect on what you’re going through to know whether it’s a brief phase or a chronic, long-lasting one.
Admitting that you’re lonely might not be easy – it could make you feel angry, shameful, or scared. But denying our loneliness only fans the flames and worsens the feeling.
Open up and talk about it
Recognizing that you’re not alone is important.
“It might seem counterintuitive, but I often wonder if the feeling that makes humans feel disconnected also seems to unify us, considering how many of us experience it at various points in life,” says Asma.
Talking to your friends, sharing your daily experiences, discussing common interests, or even reminiscing about good times with your loved ones can provide emotional support and help you feel connected. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help or join support groups, too, as this might help you work through that tangle of feelings and emerge feeling better.
Join social clubs or groups
Making new connections help in keeping you engaged and feel supported. Being part of a community with similar interests can give you a sense of belonging, and help you feel good about yourself.
“By engaging in meaningful activities during free time that demand focus, people can reduce loneliness and increase momentary happiness,” says John Dattilo, who was part of a study conducted by a team of researchers at Penn State University, Pennsylvania. Dattilo, a professor at the University, and his team found that being engrossed in mental and physical activities that require concentration helped reduce feelings of loneliness.
Get yourself a pet
Pets are great companions and have long proven to do wonders for our mental and physical health. They are natural mood boosters, and help reduce anxiety and stress.
And they are proven to reduce loneliness too. A 2014 study found that people who owned pets were 36% less likely to feel lonely than people who didn’t have pets. Plus, a pet encourages social connections as you inevitably meet other pet owners on walks or runs.
Volunteer and give back to the community
Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and a chance to make a positive impact. There are numerous opportunities for volunteering, such as working with NGOs, helping at schools or hospitals, and more. Being part of something bigger than yourself can bring a sense of belonging and renewed purpose.
A 2018 study, focused on older adults who had lost their spouse, found that volunteering for about two hours a week decreased feelings of loneliness. “We found that for people in general, widowhood was associated with increased loneliness over time. Among people who became widowed, if they started volunteering 100 hours per year, which is about two hours per week, this reduced loneliness to an extent that they almost look exactly like those people who never became widowed at all,” explains Dr. Ben Lennox Kail, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University.
Take care of your physical health
Physical health and mental well-being go hand-in-hand. We already know that eating nutritious food, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help us keep fit and feel positive. But does exercise reduce loneliness?
Yes, it does, according to this 2022 study. Researchers found that moderate to high physical activity helped mitigate feelings of loneliness by up to 30% and boosted positivity and resilience. And joining groups for physical activities had the additional benefit of improved social connections. A separate study found “a 6.9% decrease in loneliness and a 3.3% improvement in social connectedness, after adjusting for age, gender, and other characteristics.”
Whether you’re experiencing loneliness or aloneliness, there are ways to manage those thoughts. There are ways to reconnect and build a vibrant life. Because we are all in it together.