The Loneliness Epidemic

The Covid-19, health, safety and pandemic concept - senior old lonely woman sitting near the window

A segment on CBS This Morning focusing on the loneliness epidemic caught my attention and resonated with me as I observe myself and those around me. The world is getting lonelier and lonelier and the current pandemic is adding to that loneliness. As severe as the physical pain and potential for catastrophic impact the coronavirus has, it seems that loneliness is an underlying cause of deep emotional pain that also has the potential for catastrophic impact.

Loneliness is all about feeling isolated, neglected, disconnected, valueless, unimportant, ignored and rejected by others. These feelings can be experienced to various degrees and for varying lengths of time, from momentary to chronic. It is the more chronic loneliness that is of concern to the experts and should be for us, if we are one of the many mired in loneliness and/or have friends or family members who are experiencing chronic loneliness.

Afro Lady Holding Mobile Phone Feeling Lonely, Sitting On Sofa Indoor

How rampant is loneliness? The CBS This Morning segment highlighted Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Research Report that stated 61% of those surveyed reported experiencing significant loneliness. That means well over half of people are struggling with the painful and often devastating consequences of extreme loneliness! (Interestingly this report was compiled before any statistics were out on the impact of quarantining in the current pandemic that logic dictates must be adding to the loneliness factor.)

Compare that to the statistics showing how many people will get some form of cancer in their lifetime— 39% according to the National Cancer Institute. So loneliness is an epidemic that is even more prevalent than cancer! One of the experts on the CBS This Morning segment stated that extreme loneliness can have the same physical impact on a person as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!  

According to the research done by Johan Hari in his outstanding book, Lost Connections, data in a major study showed that, “ Feeling lonely… caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar — as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you. Becoming acutely lonely, the experiment found, was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack.… Being deeply lonely seem to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.” In another research study Hari shares it was discovered that isolated people were 2 to 3 times more likely to die during a nine-year period of research. “Almost everything became more fatal when you are alone: cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems.”

WebMD features an article entitled: “The Loneliness Epidemic has Very Real Consequences”  “Lack of social connection has a significant effect comparable to other leading indicators of risk for early death,” according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Feeling alone ranks up there with smokingobesity, and physical inactivity in terms of its effects on your health.”

Woman and man in social distancing sitting on bench in park

It is important to note that loneliness is different than being alone. Being alone means you are by yourself, but not necessarily experiencing emotional turmoil and pain. Many of us like being alone: it provides opportunities to do what we want to do without anyone judging, distracting, intrusive of, or critical of us. Enjoying and even relishing alone time means a person likes being alone with themselves, is comfortable in their own skin, feels internally safe, and is able to enjoy solitude.

Is the social distancing we are experiencing during this pandemic symbolic of the loneliness we are experiencing emotionally? So what do we do about all this loneliness? How can we help ourselves and each other?

According to Encyclopedia Britannica online entitled Loneliness, it can be considered through the lenses of attachment theory. “Attachment theory was the foundation for an influential psychological theory of loneliness developed by the sociologist Robert S. Weiss. Weiss identified six social needs that, if unmet, contribute to feelings of loneliness. Those needs are attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations.”

This means an antidote to some of our loneliness involves strengthening our attachments to others. We can reach out and connect via phone, social media, zoom, or conversations with those around us in all kinds of environments. Maybe we ask for frequent familial hugs from those who live with us and are less risk for spreading the virus to us. Consider just how important connecting to pets can be to help reduce feelings of loneliness. Think about someone you might write a note to just to say hello and share that you are thinking about them. Put some time into friendly emails that allow you to share something about yourself and invite the other person to reciprocate.

Loneliness is an epidemic we can do something about. We can find ways to reduce our own it and help to lift the weight of loneliness others are experiencing. We may feel powerless in this pandemic but we need to recognize the eminent dangers of loneliness and claim our power to reduce it.

 Invitation for Reflection

  1. How lonely have you been feeling during this pandemic? What are some of your symptoms of that loneliness? Would you consider to be mild, moderate, or extreme?
  2. What are some of the things you can do to reduce your loneliness?
  3. How can you help reduce loneliness in the lives of those you care about? In the lives of those with whom you have even casual interactions?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute