Most everyone experiences feelings of loneliness. The prolonged time of social distancing, especially now during the holidays can make it particularly difficult. Feeling a lack of connection or being physically separated from those we love isn’t easy. At times, loneliness can be a powerful emotion to overcome.
When we feel lonely more days than not, it can be a serious risk to your health.
“Loneliness has become a more talked-about issue recently, especially because of the forced isolation for many of us during the pandemic,” said Dr. Sandra Minta, health psychologist, with Samaritan Health Services. “But loneliness has been a health risk for a long time. Especially for older adults, but for those of all ages, loneliness can not only lead to depression and anxiety, it can also increase a person’s risk for other serious medical conditions.”
The Impact of Loneliness
According to the National Institute for Aging (NIA), “research has linked loneliness and social isolation to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death.”
Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that “more than one-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults age 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated or lacking in social connections.” Young people are also at risk. Some studies have found that young people, ages 16 to 24 may be the loneliest segment of the population.
“Loneliness really affects people of all ages and for many reasons,” said Dr. Minta. “Sometimes, loneliness is caused by situational changes, such as moving away from friends and family, changing schools, divorce, the death of a loved one, or in the case of the pandemic, being physically isolated from others. While not to be diminished, often this type of loneliness can be countered by reaching out to loved ones, remaining connected to friends at your previous school or engaging in a focused activity.”
“But sometimes, loneliness doesn’t pass. Maybe the loneliness originates from a lack of self-esteem, or a belief that we are not worthy of meaningful connections with others,” Dr. Minta said. “Or someone may no longer feel enjoyment from activities they used to consider fun. In those times, talking with a mental health professional may be helpful to move a person forward.”
Understand the Cause
To help you evaluate your loneliness, Dr. Minta suggests reflection is a good place to start.
“When you feel lonely, instead of trying to think of a way to avoid loneliness or change the feeling, start by exploring where it comes from,” she said. “What is causing your loneliness? Did you previously enjoy spending time alone but now you don’t? Do your friends make you feel lonely or your work situation? When we understand the reason for our loneliness, we can begin to find some solutions,” she said. “Maybe we need to strengthen some relationships we already have or seek out new people in our lives. Or maybe we need to engage in new activities that give us a sense of purpose.”
When it comes to helping our children cope with loneliness, Dr. Minta noted that opening the door for communication is a good first step.
“Children may know they feel sad, for example, but may not be able to identify it as loneliness. Parents can help them learn to identify loneliness and what to do about it. In that way, parents are helping their child feel more in control of their situation,” she said.
Parents and their children can talk about ways to overcome loneliness that would work best for them. “Make a list of ideas that your child could do when he or she feels lonely, such as dancing to a favorite song, crafting or calling a family member or a friend. This list can empower your child to know they have their own resources to help them cope.
“But if you feel your child is more than lonely and possible depressed, it may be a good idea to reach out to a mental health specialist for help,” Dr. Minta said.
10 Ideas to Counter Loneliness
Sometimes, we just need some ideas for what can help us combat loneliness. With the pandemic still active in our communities, these are a few socially distant possibilities for all ages:
- Learn something new. YouTube videos are an excellent source to learn nearly everything from the tango to trigonometry.
- Take photos. Use your smartphone or an inexpensive digital camera to see the world around you from a new perspective. What would that dandelion look like from an ant’s perspective, or the tea kettle in hyper-close detail? Use free online photo editing software to enhance and distort your images.
- Create surprise care packages for others.
- Sightsee in your own town. Get to know your town as a tourist would.
- Agree to watch the same movie as a friend and meet afterwards on Zoom or FaceTime to discuss. Or use the Netflix Party app to watch together.
- Host a story reading on FaceTime. Everyone comes dressed as their favorite character.
- Read a book that includes a character you identify with.
- Write to someone you haven’t talked to in years. Get reacquainted by letter.
- Keep a gratitude journal and list everything that makes you thankful.
- Plant a variety of flower bulbs this fall so that spring is a colorful surprise.
Dr. Sandra Minta is a health psychologist with Samaritan Family Medicine Southwest/Corvallis Urgent Care. To connect with a mental health professional, talk with your primary care provider or call our Find-A-Doctor line at 800-863-5241.