An Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation
We all feel lonely from time to time. Lately, however, there’s been so many people reporting that they feel lonely “much of the time” that the U.S. Surgeon General declared an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is the feeling that we get when we perceive that our social connection needs are not being met. It’s different for everyone—some people may feel lonely when they are by themselves, while others are perfectly happy to be on their own for much of the time. Loneliness can also occur even when we’re with others, especially if you feel like you can’t be your authentic, vulnerable self with other people.
An occasional feeling of loneliness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can offer a moment of self-reflection and help us redefine what is important to us in our relationships. However, when we experience chronic feelings of loneliness or isolation, this experience can contribute to negative mental and physical health.
What is an “epidemic of loneliness?”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one out of two people in the United States reported experiencing loneliness. Younger people, ages 18 to 24, are feeling it even more—almost eight out of 10 people in this age range reported feeling lonely. This age group especially missed out on some critical opportunities for socialization at an important time in their lives, due to the pandemic and having to graduate high school or attend college online.
Studies show that loneliness is reported more often in ethnic and racial minority groups or those in lower income levels. While on average 50 percent of adults self-report being lonely, 75 percent of Latinx/Hispanic adults and 68 percent of Black/African American adults classified themselves as lonely. More than 60 percent of adults earning less than $50,000 classified themselves as lonely.
Every one of us is being touched by this silent mental health crisis—either ourselves or someone we care about. And there are substantial mental health and physical effects of feeling this way.
How feeling lonely impacts your health and well-being
Sustained feelings of loneliness can lead to anxiety and depression. They can also impact your physical health—studies have shown that a lack of social connections can increase your risk of premature death to levels that are similar to people who smoke daily. According to one study, loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and the risk of stroke by 32 percent.
Feeling lonely can impact one’s ability to work as well. Younger people experiencing the loneliness and isolation of the last few years find it more difficult to focus on their schoolwork and at their jobs. People who report feeling lonely are also more likely to not feel well or feel sick while at work, and report feeling that they are not able to work efficiently or perform to the best of their abilities.
According to the Surgeon General’s report, loneliness is more widespread today than any other major health issue in the United States. Increasing our social connections can be a proactive approach to a happy and healthier life.
The Three Components of Social Connection
We’re all wired for social connection to some level. There is a sense of “safety in numbers” that is ingrained in us, and we rely on those social connections in a variety of ways. These different ways that we connect socially depend on multiple factors, but generally fall into three components.
This component is made up of the number of relationships, the variety of relationships (think co-workers, friends, family, etc.), and how often we interact with others.
This component outlines the degree to which others can be relied upon for various needs, such as emotional or crisis support.
This component defines the positive and negative aspects of our interactions and relationships. Our levels of social connection change over time for a wide range of reasons—moving, changing jobs, illness, and many more. It’s important to recognize when we feel lonely or isolated for an extended period of time and make changes to help strengthen our social connections.
How to manage loneliness and build social connections
Loneliness can be associated with a lot of shame. Often, people have trouble talking about it, which can exacerbate the sense of isolation. However, opening up to people about your feelings of loneliness can help increase the quality and strengthen the function of that relationship and increase your feelings of belonging. Allowing someone else to see that sometimes you feel lonely may help them when they are feeling lonely, as well.
As we get older, we sometimes find that making new friends can be more challenging. But there are a variety of ways to meet new people to help expand your social circles should you feel the need. Finding a group that meets frequently and is based around a common interest can be an easier place to start. Joining a professional organization can help you meet other people in your career field and community. Volunteering with an organization can provide not only social interaction but also feelings of fulfillment and service.
If you feel that things are too hard to work on by yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional or medical provider. For young adults ages 18 to 26, the Young Adult Outpatient Psychiatry Center can help. If you need emergency psychiatric help, you can call 988, chat online at 988lifeline.org/chat, or visit the BH Link Triage Center at any time of day, seven days a week.
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