Jump to section
How can loneliness still be an issue in the age of technology? Despite being at the point in history when most people can connect with others remotely, loneliness is still a very current issue. In fact, it is affecting an increasing number of people. Social distancing measures, quarantines, and lockdowns have isolated more people than ever.
Can loneliness really have an impact on our health?
There is scientific evidence on how poor social connection impacts our physical and mental health. Science also gives us some helpful strategies for coping with overwhelming loneliness. It is important to know that, as lonely as we may feel, we are never absolutely alone.
What is loneliness & isolation? Some scientific facts
Sometimes we underestimate the role that socialization plays in our health. Being connected is not just something that happens when we have a family get-together or go out to dinner with friends. We connect to others when we say hello to a neighbor when we run errands, or share a smile with a stranger.
Research has shown how feeling isolated has negative consequences for our mental health. Here are some scientific facts:
- In one of the first studies carried out on the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness was highlighted as one of the factors with the greatest psychological impact on the health of the population.
- Another study, by the University of Sussex on the interaction between loneliness and physical and mental illness showed the connection between loneliness and mortality and morbidity (the state of being unhealthy for a particular disease or situation).
For this reason, it's important to devote time and energy to taking care of our mental health. This is especially true at times like this when we feel farthest away from the world. Feeling stressed can be a direct consequence of the situations we find ourselves in. Combined with economic, political, social uncertainty, this can lead to major health problems.
Is there a cure for loneliness?
There may not be a magic bullet “cure” for loneliness. Still, there are healthy ways to cope and reconnect socially, and thereby regain a sense of belonging.
One of the first steps is knowing how to identify it. When we feel lonely or isolated, we often feel confused, disconnected from the world, and even helpless in daily situations. Being aware that these feelings are part of social isolation is the first way of coping with loneliness.
Traditionally, loneliness has been a problem attributed to the elderly. But some recent studies have shown how this phenomenon is becoming more and more frequent among younger populations. It is an issue that needs addressing given its impact on mental health. The feeling of loneliness is part of life. So are other unpleasant sensations, such as pain or fear.
Even when we feel absolutely isolated, we are not alone. During the first weeks of the pandemic, the American Psychological Association published an interesting article on having meaningful interactions with those around us. These interactions could:
- Improve our mood and our sense of belonging to our community
- Have a positive impact on those people by generating a kind of implicit network of support and connection
A casual conversation with the person who serves you at the supermarket or a smile can make a difference to you and your environment, even if only through a glance.
We are never entirely alone. Being aware that we have access to someone's company, either more directly and deeply — or even superficially — makes us feel more in control of this feeling of helplessness.
What are the main causes of loneliness?
Knowing the cause of this feeling can help us feel more in control of what is happening to us. Understanding what message our body is trying to give us with this feeling can be an interesting question to ask when loneliness appears.
Emotions, including loneliness, have the fundamental function of orienting us in life. They bring us closer to what makes us grow and distance us from what limits us or hurts us. When emotions warn us, it can mean that we have not been listening to these sensations, instead of trying to look the other way or to silence them. This is completely natural. No one wants to realize that they are lonely and feel all that goes with it. But the function of this emotion isn't about producing pain and sadness. It reminds us of the importance of staying connected and close to others. Human beings are social beings, and it is in our nature to connect.
We can even reconnect with other situations in our past in which we have felt similarly and try to remember how we managed to regain a sense of belonging.
6 ways of combating loneliness
Discovering that loneliness is a message to stay connected can be the first step in changing our loneliness experience.
You can improve your ability to cope with loneliness by connecting with:
1. Family and friends
When the unpleasant feeling of loneliness appears, the first thing you may want to do is to connect with your loved ones. Thanks to technology, we can simultaneously see and hear someone on the other side of the world. Listening to your need to contact them can be a step to recharge your energy by feeling like you belong. And this is even more important if you find yourself physically living away from your family or loved ones. Share a moment in physical or virtual company with someone you care about.
Set aside a few hours a week to connect with friends and family. There doesn't necessarily have to be a specific reason to call those we care about. A familiar look or a loving smile can change our experience instantly, even if we are far away or unable to see each other.
2. Your community
Sometimes, the most unpleasant feeling is to feel alone surrounded by people. The problem is not so much the lack of people but, again, the lack of a feeling of belonging and connection. Whether in a group activity, going hiking, or volunteering, being part of the activities in your community can give you a feeling of belonging. It can also have a very positive impact on your environment and those around you.
3. Mental health specialists
At times, we may find the need to ask for help. Far from being a weakness, this is a great strength. It empowers us to contact people who specialize in our wellbeing and are willing to help us regain it.
4. The present
Often, when we feel lonely, we tend to feel sad; and sometimes very focused on the past, what happened and no longer happened, or what did not happen and should have happened. Other times, we are very focused on the future and what will happen or what will not happen, making us feel anxious.
Connecting with the present helps fully put our attention and desire into what we do. We can enjoy even more the small daily interactions that keep us together and aware of all the social support we can receive. Spending a few minutes listening to my neighbor's "good morning" can make a difference, no matter how small this gesture may seem.
The benefits of animal companion therapies are well recognized. Dedicating time in the day to share with a pet can give you back a feeling of support and belonging. The unconditional love with which our pet looks at us is an act of compassion and deep admiration.
6. With yourself
Connecting with yourself can be a solution — or it may even be what we are most afraid of. Sometimes, we worry about being alone because we find it hard to detach from difficult emotions. If this is the case, it may be a good idea to ask for professional help and/or support from your loved ones.
When we manage to become our best ally, we can feel accompanied even if we are not with anyone else. And one way to achieve this is by practicing self-compassion. It's the ability to be kind to ourselves in the good and not-so-good times, accepting our humanity. This is not a one-day process — it requires dedication — and its results can be a before and after in your life.
By dedicating time to our self-care, we will dedicate effort and desire to love ourselves. We will feel well-being and a sense of home being in our own company.
We can also maintain a schedule that allows us to make healthy transitions from work, study to leisure, or daily tasks. You can include in the scheduled activities choices that you enjoy and help us grow.
And even when we can not go out or be physical with those we love, we can always plan, even if we have to update it later. How many times have we not regretted having time to prepare for a trip, spending time to inform ourselves and organize the places we want to visit? This may be a planning idea to now and enjoy in the future.
What hobbies or activities can help deal with loneliness?
As described above, doing activities that make you feel good just for the sake of doing them is one of the best ways to deal with loneliness.
Besides doing yoga or working out at home, many other activities can connect you to something you are passionate about. Creative activities include working with clay, writing, musical composition, painting, or cooking. It could involve preparing thematic film sessions, doing activities related to nature or deepening, and learning more about a specific topic that we have wanted to delve into for a long time... the options are endless.
Even volunteering can be an option to connect with others in a meaningful way. Participating in an organization that aligns with your values can be a way to connect to others with similar values as your own.
At BetterUp, we love helping individuals thrive. See how BetterUp can help you on your journey to better yourself.
BetterUp Care Coach, MSc Clinical Psychology and Researcher