Pandemic or not: Why we struggle with feeling lonely – and how to overcome it
You have lots of family members you cherish. Even more friends you adore. You might have even a relatively active social life before the pandemic. So why do you feel so lonely?
You aren’t alone – even though if feels so desperately like that.
Social distancing. Sheltering in place. Locking down. Self-isolation. Getting groceries delivered. Waving at family from windows. Missing out on so much.
It’s taken a toll on loneliness.
The lonely concern is real
Everyone – from social workers and scholars to neighbors and children – is concerned about older adults’ feeling lonely – often a result of losing meaningful relationships and contact with others.
Nearly one third of older adults experience some level loneliness or isolation – and 5% say they feel that way often or always, according to St. Louis University researchers who had their study published in the National Institute of Health’s Nature Public Health Emergency Collection.
An increasing number of older adults feel lonely and isolated since the onset of the pandemic, according to research out of The Global Health Research and Policy. They miss social visits with family and friends, church and community center events, getting to stores or having guests
What’s worse, loneliness can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health. The Global Health Research and Policy study found loneliness and isolation are linked to increased blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, and risk of Alzheimer’s disease, among other physical and mental health issues.
Signs of loneliness
The good news: Scientists found loneliness hasn’t increased exponentially with the coronavirus. But it has gone up.
“You might expect this would make things much worse,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and social psychologist at Brigham Young University, told National Public Radio. But “I was seeing a real outpouring of communities really trying to band together and look out for neighbors and for those who might be most vulnerable.”
Still, loneliness exists – and you’ll want to help yourself, a friend or family member who suffers.
The first step: Know what loneliness looks like. The most common signs include:
- Lack of connections. You might have family and friends in your life but there’s no deep, intimate relationship. Instead, you relate and talk briefly on the surface – about small-talk issues such as the weather and current events.
- No close or best friends. Your friends are casual or merely acquaintances. You wouldn’t likely share secrets and you don’t really “get” each other.
- Overwhelming feeling of loneliness regardless of where you are or who is around you. You can be with one or 100 others and still feel separate from them. You keep your head down, go through the motions and don’t engage with others.
- Negative feelings about yourself. You doubt your abilities and worth. You feel like what you do and say is wrong in almost all social situations.
- Exhaustion or burnout when you try to engage socially. You feel drained after being in a social situation and trying to engage with others. You might start to avoid social engagements so you don’t feel like that or get exhausted.
How to get help for loneliness
If you recognize these symptoms in yourself (or a close friend or family member), there’s help.
You might try – or recommend – some of these free resources:
- The National Alliance on Mental Health offers education, outreach and advocacy around the country.
- The Connect2Affect program offers a loneliness assessment, plus resources on how to stay connected and avoid loneliness and isolation.
- HalfOfUs.com can help you start to address loneliness or any mental health issue you’re concerned about.
How to help yourself through loneliness
Fortunately, people can take steps to help themselves avoid or curb the loneliness. Experts recommend these tactics:
- Engage with others in positive, healthy ways – even if it’s difficult at first. Volunteering is one of the most powerful ways to engage in a positive way. It gives an opportunity to do good for others, interact with like-minded people and engage on a limited basis. You can find causes and places that fit you on VolunteerMatch.org. Other positive ways to engage: Pursue hobby clubs, group exercise classes and arts clubs.
- Call a ‘friend.’ The Institute on Aging offers The Friendship Line, a toll-free number that older adults can call if they feel lonely, don’t need emergency care but want some emotional support. The Institute also offers ongoing outreach calls to older adults who are lonely. The number is 800-971-0016.
- Exercise outdoors. Research continually shows that activity in the sunshine elevates the good hormones – endorphins and serotonin – which boost moods, improve sleep and generally make people feel happier.
- Talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional about how you feel. Because loneliness can lead to other physical and mental health issues, your healthcare professional may be equipped to direct you toward healthy solutions.
- Consider adopting a pet. If your health and home situations allow pets, look into adopting a pet you can reasonably manage. One study – and thousands of real-life anecdotes – found taking care of pets has many health benefits including easing loneliness. You might find animals that need to be adopted through your local SPCA.
- Learn a new skill. Continued learning has cognitive and mental health benefits. Try free online classes – such as those offered through edX, MOOCs and Coursera – or regular workshops and courses offered through VigR.
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