Loneliness is one of the most ubiquitous side effects of COVID-19 that can affect anyone. However, loneliness has been on the rise for decades becoming one of today’s most significant social problems worldwide. A third of American adults say they feel lonelier than ever. Before the pandemic, this number was already three in five Americans. Gaining a better understanding of loneliness and its consequences, reducing the stigma, and knowing what to do about it can help improve, and even save, lives.
What is loneliness?
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Loneliness can occur in various forms and situations. It can manifest itself even when one is surrounded by a group of people, at work, or even at home with family. The difference depends on feeling a connection with others. A missing connection causes loneliness. Lacking a close emotional bond or having fewer social contacts than before can lead to feelings of emptiness, sadness, and anxiety.
It is essential to be able to recognize loneliness within ourselves and others. Long-term loneliness comes with a high mental cost, causing insomnia, stress, and depression. People who feel depressed are less satisfied with their lives and are more likely to become ill, experience suicidal ideation, and develop dementia. In addition, feeling lonely and depressed often leads to smoking, drinking, and eating unhealthily with its adverse side effects. Understanding the mental and physical consequences of loneliness can help remove the stigma and help one move forward to seek help and/or offer help to others.
Psychologist Ami Rokach splits loneliness into two categories.
- Reactive loneliness is described as the response to the experience of a disruptive situation, such as important losses, for example, losing a significant person, a job, moving away, or separation from loved ones. Being aware of disruptive situations in our lives and those of our loved ones can help prevent long-term loneliness by asking for or offering support.
- Essential loneliness is a personality trait that can cause chronic feelings of alienation and isolation, often resulting from challenges in attachment experienced in early childhood. Understanding essential loneliness can help reduce the stigma and potential shame, making it easier to ask for or offer support.
In addition to the two categories, Rokach divides loneliness into five dimensions. Those who recognize themselves in at least two or three of these dimensions might experience loneliness.
- Emotional Distress can be explained as experiencing pain, hurt, and anxiety, feeling like you have a broken heart.
- Social incapacity and alienation are the fears of not being good enough for others, feeling ignored, feeling inadequate, and underappreciated.
- Interpersonal Isolation is to feel that you are loved by no one, feeling as if there are no meaningful close or romantic relationships; feeling like you do not matter to anyone.
- Self-alienation is described as the experience as if the body is separated from the mind. This is regarded as a protective mechanism so as you do not to have to feel the pain of loneliness.
- Growth and discovery provides for the opportunity to cope and overcome using our own resources.
There is no quick fix for loneliness. However, if you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, a good start would be to be honest about how you are genuinely doing. Share and involve your feelings with loved ones and people you trust. It might help to know that other people are experiencing similar feelings, that you are not alone, and understand how they can better support you. Loneliness is part of being human. Opening up the conversation hopefully reduces the stigma and increases the collective mental health within our communities.
1. Think again
Many lonely people fight loneliness by seeking distraction or unhealthy coping mechanisms. However, it is also essential to take a look at your situation and feelings. These thinking strategies might
- Consider why you are feeling lonely.
- Think about and try viewing the positive sides of being alone, learning to be independent, and a time for self-development.
- Realize that others are lonely at times, especially in this unreal time.
- Think about things and make a list of things that you are good at.
- Try to think about something other than your feelings of loneliness.
- Think of things to do to overcome the feeling of loneliness.
Actively contact loved ones, such as friends, family, or neighbors, more often. Try to realize that you are not alone in this, and others might experience similar feelings to help make it easier to seek and offer support. Talk, listen and connect with them. Expressing your feelings of loneliness can already be a great relief and strengthen the relationship.
3. Help others
Shift your attention to the needs of other people. You can offer your help with practical matters, such as grocery shopping or gardening. Ask for the needs of others by posting a message in the neighborhood app. Be attentive to loved ones on important moments, such as birthdays or ordering dinner when they are not doing well. Or sign up for volunteer work that you would enjoy. There are a lot of ways you can share and give. This way, you can be of significance to others, contributing to more happiness, satisfaction, self-confidence, and less loneliness.
Take time for self-care activities that you enjoy. (See my self-care article in January’s Aero Crew News.) Listen to an audiobook or beautiful music, go outside for a long walk, and keep a journal with emotions you are processing. Feeling satisfied being with only yourself increases the feelings of independence and growth. Try to become acustumed to it by taking small steps. By consciously not seeking contact with others from time to time and focusing on yourself, you are building strength for feeling less lonely.
Understanding loneliness and reducing its stigma is of significant importance to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others. You can grow or help others grow through the experience of loneliness. You might discover that you are stronger than you thought and that you have within yourself more ways to cope with difficult situations. You may come to appreciate certain relationships again and strengthen them through this experience. However, if you are having difficulty escaping the feelings of loneliness, do not hesitate to seek support from a mental health professional. Remember that you are not alone, and you do not have to tackle this alone.
Reference: Rokach, A. (2020). COVID-19 and loneliness: Can we do anything about it? https://www.elsevier.com/connect/covid-19-and-loneliness-can-we-do-anything-about-it