Health & Wellness

The Loneliness Epidemic (+ 6 Tips for Overcoming Loneliness)

You may be aware that many of my close family members have moved on from this world. I miss them tremendously, every moment of every day. Despite my amazing group of friends and remaining family members here on Earth, I still experience extreme loneliness at times. And, as it turns out, I am not alone. A recent survey found that about 43 percent of seniors feel lonely regularly. But it’s not just seniors. Almost half of all Americans (46 percent) reported feeling lonely all or some of the time. Overcoming loneliness is something many people in the U.S. are struggling with—to the extent that a “loneliness epidemic” has been declared.

 

Loneliness and Mental Health

Perhaps most surprisingly, “Generation Z” (adults ages 18-22 years old, also known as the “iGen”) has been deemed the loneliest generation. On the surface, Generation Z is seemingly even more “connected” with other people than ever due to their use of social media. However, a recent study found that college-bound high school seniors today spend an hour less a day on in-person interactions than kids their same age did in the 1980s. [1] This generation is struggling with truly connecting and overcoming loneliness.

Another study has concluded that there is a “generational shift” in mood disorders, including depression, among Generation Z. This group reported higher rates of psychological and emotional distress than other age groups. [2] And, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), rates of suicide among those 10 to 24 years old increased 56 percent from 2007 to 2017. I find it interesting and concerning that smartphones were also first introduced on a wide scale in 2007. [3]

Personally, I feel that the definition of “personal connection” or “friend” is a bit vague nowadays, and I wonder if we are losing the ability to form and develop true friendships? For example, I can say that the only way I have coped with the loss of my family members is through my solid friendships and direct person-to-person relationships. As a generation, are we losing the ability to form real friendships? And might this be the cause of this growing epidemic?

 

 

Loneliness and Grief

Most of us know that feelings of loneliness can be emotionally difficult. But those who find themselves alone unexpectedly, perhaps due to the loss of a loved one or separation from family members or friends, may be especially at risk for chronic loneliness. [4] Losing a loved one unexpectedly can cause feelings of social isolation in addition to grief.

When I lost my parents, I felt very alone and isolated, and still do many times a month. I understand how hard it can be to connect to others during those difficult times. Overcoming loneliness may feel impossible. But those are the times when we need to connect in person the most.

Feelings of loneliness can also occur due to perceived loss. As a mother, I am concerned about my children’s perceived happiness and friendships. I look for ways to teach them how to properly communicate directly with others to find support. What do I mean by “perceived loss”? Think about how a young person might feel when someone “unfollows” them or bullies them on online platforms. These are just as much of a “loss” to this person and can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. I truly believe that the current loneliness epidemic has strong ties to our growing use of these technologies. We need to take notice and provide resources for ways to connect with supportive social environments.

 

Loneliness and Physical Health

We see how ongoing loneliness may cause mental health struggles and lead to anxiety and depression. But loneliness and isolation don’t just affect your mental health. Chronic loneliness can also increase the risk of physical health problems. In fact, researchers have stated that the stress from loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! [5] Both animal and human studies have shown that the stress on the body caused by chronic loneliness and isolation can increase the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure and also negatively impact the immune system. [6] Evidence also shows a link between depression and the opioid epidemic. [7]

I understand how overwhelming feelings of loneliness can be. If you or a loved one is struggling with how to cope with loneliness, I encourage you to surround yourself with support and keep the following tips for overcoming loneliness in mind.

Loneliness and your health - Dr. Pingel

6 Tips for Overcoming Loneliness

Coping with loneliness is a serious struggle sometimes. You may find yourself lost in swirling thoughts and tears. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The key to overcoming these feelings is to connect with other people who lift you up, not bring you further down.

Below I’ve listed six tips to help you start feeling more connected to those who support you. Keep in mind that these tips are a starting point and there are many ways to build connections with others and improve your quality of life. I encourage you to keep seeking new ways and people who bring you joy so that you can find your “tribe.”

 

1. Limit social media.

Be honest with yourself for a moment: How many times in your day do you “scroll” through others’ lives? Do you find yourself doing this at a stoplight? Although it’s called “social” media, a lot of time spent on Facebook and Instagram and other online social networks may do more harm than good for your social life. A recent study showed that people ages 16 to 24 spend about three hours a day on social media. [8] The irony is that time spent on social media takes you away from physically connecting with the people who support and love you unconditionally

Limiting your phone time on social media and actually calling your friends or meeting them in person can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness fairly quickly. When you can meet someone’s eyes in person, you exchange energy that is impossible to obtain virtually.

We all struggle with daily life and social media is not representative of this. We have to share physical energy and space with someone – chat about our struggles and support each other. It is this amazing personal connection that can help lift us out of depression and remind us of the life we have to live—away from our phones.  Interactions with others are often simply more meaningful in person; that’s where the “magic” of social interaction occurs.

All that said, there are some instances where online platforms may actually help with overcoming loneliness. For example, joining an online group or course with others who share similar interests or hobbies may provide a way to interact with others that may not otherwise be available to you. But my point still stands, use these platforms to meet likeminded people. Then, if possible, give them a call or set up a meeting to chat in person.

 

2. Get outside.

Spending some time outdoors can help boost your feeling of wellbeing and lift your mood. I encourage you to use this time outside to connect with the beauty around you. Put your feet in the dirt. Feel the warmth of the sunshine on your skin.  Getting plenty of vitamin D from time spent in the sun is important for your health. Plus, going for a walk or a run or doing other forms of outdoor exercise is great for your overall health. [9] You could even consider joining a group that spends time outdoors such as a running, biking, or hiking club as a way to make new social connections. If your mobility is limited, simply sitting outside and enjoying the sunshine, birdsong, and a breeze can lift your spirits, and even more so if you are sitting with friends.

 

3. Spend time with a furry friend.

I have always had pets because they truly lift my mood. Just when I start feeling lonely, one of my animals will inevitably show up at my feet or on my lap. They just know, don’t they? That “Scooby-Doo” kiss always makes me smile! A little “pet therapy” can do wonders for your mood and your health. If you don’t already have a pet, you may want to consider getting a furry (or feathered!) friend to keep you company. You could also consider volunteering at an animal shelter for a win-win—you could make a lonely cat or dog’s day by spending time with them.

 

4. Try something new.

Maybe you’re stuck in a rut. This could be a great time to try something new. Perhaps there’s something new you would like to learn. For example, dancing could be a fun way to meet new people and learn something new. Plus, it’s great for your health! Or, maybe you’d like to visit somewhere you’ve never been to before. Just getting out of the house and being around others can help to improve your mood and increase the chances of meeting new people. You could even join a travel tour group.

 

5. Volunteer.

Whether it’s volunteering at an animal shelter, a local organization, or helping with a cause or event that’s meaningful to you, finding ways to be of service will help you to not only meet new people and interact with others but also help you find meaning and purpose.

 

6. Be kind to yourself.

Pay attention to your inner voice. Sometimes that inner critic can be nasty. Have compassion for yourself. Reframe those negative stories. Treat yourself like you would treat a friend. Remember that we all struggle sometimes. And sometimes when you find yourself being hard on yourself that’s when you most need to make it about others. Be proactive and figure out how you can help others. Meanwhile, be kind to yourself.

 

7. Book a Reiki session.

I mentioned that the beauty of physical relationships is the exchange of energy. Simply tapping into this energy can do wonders, not only for loneliness but also for grief.

When my mom passed away, I started seeing a Reiki practitioner because I felt both emotional and physical pain around my heart. By allowing the practitioner to move that energy and work through the emotions holding that pain, I was able to feel more connected— not only with those physically around me, but also with those energies that have passed on. It may sound farfetched, but there is no harm in exploring energy work to assist you in finding peace and happiness. There are no side effects and it can be very soothing.

 

 Key Takeaways

  • Researchers have declared that there is a loneliness epidemic in the United States.
  • Chronically lonely people are often at an increased risk of health problems such as anxiety and depression, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
  • If you feel lonely, try some of my tips for overcoming loneliness. Spending time outside, finding ways to interact with others in person, and practicing self-care such as getting enough sleep, exercise, and self-compassion can go a long way to helping you deal with loneliness.
  • If you find it difficult to connect with others and you are dealing with depression, you may want to consider speaking with a therapist or your doctor.
  • If you or someone you love is at risk of suicide reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at suicidepreventionlife.org or dial 1-800-273-8255.

 

 You might also enjoy: 5 Fun Ways to Reduce Stress

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