The loneliness epidemic, and how we can overcome it
Insight by Laura Shook Guzman
Loneliness is a growing issue in society, bringing with it an increased risk of serious health issues. Psychotherapist Laura Shook Guzman offers her insights on loneliness, from how to address it as a society, to how we can help ourselves and others overcome it.
Human beings are social animals – a characteristic that has played a major role in our success and survival as a species for millions of years. As a result, our brains are wired to build relationships with others. Without these, it's easy for us to start to feel alone, separate, disconnected, unwanted, and empty.
Being alone doesn't necessarily mean we are experiencing loneliness though. We can enjoy complete solitude, and conversely, we can be surrounded by others but still feel separate. The key difference between being alone and experiencing loneliness is our level of connection with others.
On the surface, this may not sound like too much of an issue – and it isn't if we think of loneliness as a natural human emotion that is signalling to us that we need to move towards more connection. To solve the problem therefore, we need to actively seek more connection.
But according to research into loneliness, solving this problem isn't quite as simple as it looks with a growing number of us not having our connection needs met. In fact, since the 1980s, reports of loneliness have almost doubled. I can also add to this my personal experience in psychotherapy where, in recent years, I've seen a sharp spike in self-reported incidences of loneliness resulting from the social isolation that came with COVID-19. In addition, stress, caregiving responsibilities, and risk of illness all increased, while social connection, sense of safety and mobility all decreased. Combined together, these experiences have without doubt exacerbated peoples’ feelings of isolation and loneliness.
How serious an issue is loneliness?
As I have witnessed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, our risk for loneliness increases when circumstances arise that inhibit us from moving towards social and emotional connection with others. These can be internal circumstances, such as mental health challenges or chronic illness, or external circumstances, like physical isolation, being differently abled, and financial hardship.
The implications of loneliness can be very serious. In a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review, former Surgeon General for the US, Vivek Murthy, described loneliness as "a growing health epidemic." And looking at the data, it's easy to see why: both loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity. Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety are all associated with loneliness too.
How can loneliness be addressed?
Thankfully, the discussion about loneliness has improved in recent years. We're now talking about it more openly and discussing how best to deal with it, as opposed to the virtually non-existent conversation about loneliness of some 10 years ago.
That isn't to say we are doing enough though. Stigma and shame associated with the idea of being lonely still very much exists as we live in a society that views social connectedness and ones’ social circle as a reflection of self-worth and value. Admitting that you are experiencing loneliness can therefore be challenging for many. Still, validating and recognising the signs of loneliness and being able to ask for help would be a very important first step, while advocacy efforts and public campaigns to help educate people on recognising and responding to feelings of loneliness are also key.
Another area we need to address as a society is our growing sense of disconnection from others and disconnection from our self. Our reliance on technology to connect with others is not only keeping us from talking to each other as we're wired to do, but it's also responsible for a growing divide with self. This problem is just as important as breaking the stigma around loneliness, especially considering our culture’s lack of support for self-care, reflection, compassion and time with self.
What should I do if I'm feeling lonely?
First it is important to realise that everyone experiences loneliness and as I mentioned earlier, it can simply be a signalling emotion that lets us know that our connection needs are not being adequately addressed.
When you begin to experience pervasive feelings of sadness, irritability, shame or overwhelm, this can be a sign that it is impacting your wellbeing and mental health, at which point, it’s time to ask for help. Try talking to a trusted family member, friend, therapist or coach, joining a support group with others who have shared lived experiences, seeking opportunities to connect with others in your community with shared interests, or cultivating a mindfulness practice for connecting more deeply with your self.
How can I help someone else who I think might be feeling lonely?
If you have resources, share these with them and encourage them to ask for help.
And if they are open to it, share your own experience with loneliness and let them know that they are not alone. This can decrease feelings of isolation or shame, hearing that they are not the only one who is struggling. Being the social animals that we are, "me, too; you are not alone" can be an incredibly powerful message.
Laura is currently working to support founder mental health and offer a mental health support group in which the experience of loneliness is explored, as well as the many other challenges to maintaining mental wellness. You can find out more about the support group here.
Laura also offers therapy and coaching for individuals and pairs. You can contact her here.