Loneliness, The Other Pandemic
While we’ve all been doing our best to manage through a global pandemic of the COVID variety, another has been quietly growing beneath the surface. Loneliness and social isolation have also spread over the past year, and they might be problems with less clear solutions.
A study done in December 2020 found that 36% of Americans felt lonely most of the time, compared to 25% prior to the pandemic. Shockingly, 61% of young adults between 18-25 years of age reported high levels of loneliness, as well as 51% of mothers with young children.1 These are both groups for whom social connections are critically important, as well as maybe difficult to find without shared interest activities and ability to be out and meeting people in person.
As social activities might be resuming, those who have been feeling lonely or isolated during the pandemic might be unsure or anxious about how to reconnect with others, or what will actually make them feel less lonely. A key piece of solving loneliness is identifying what it is that makes being alone a negative experience rather than a positive/rewarding one – many people like being alone and might think of this as enjoying solitude rather than feeling lonely. Often it is our patterns of negative thinking or beliefs about ourselves and our worth that makes the distinction between solitude and loneliness.
In his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy talks about three different kinds of loneliness: intimate loneliness, where we are longing for emotional closeness and trust; relational or social loneliness, where we might be lacking quality friendship or companionship; and collective loneliness, in which we want to belong to a community with some shared purpose or interest. Identifying which kind of loneliness you are feeling can give you some direction in how to resolve it.
If you have been struggling with feeling lonely, here are some things that can help.
- Identify your negative thoughts – When you are feeling lonely, try to tune in to your thoughts. Are you telling yourself there’s something wrong with you? That you don’t deserve to have close relationships? Or that you’ll be alone forever? If you can pick out a negative thought, try out a more positive appraisal or an observation of the facts without judgment. You might substitute, “I don’t have as many close friends as I’d like to right now,” or “I am worthy of love and closeness.” These alternative messages lower self-blame or resentment that can create more barriers to opening up to connection, and might even give you some ideas about what to do to solve your problem! If you find that negative thinking gets in the way of making meaningful connections, therapy can be a great tool for exploring and letting go of unhelpful beliefs.
- Think about what kind of connection you’re wanting – Are you looking for someone to be emotionally close with? Companionship? Or a sense of community? Think about where there are possibilities for more connection in whichever area you identified. If you’re looking for emotional closeness, are there acquaintances you might want to get to know better? If it’s community you’re craving, are there some interests that you might find a group around? Or if it’s companionship, is there someone who might want to try something new with you?
- Take a little risk – Try disrupting both your thoughts and your routine. If you work from home or don’t leave your house much, go to a park or coffee shop where there are at least opportunities for connection. If you haven’t reached out to a friend because you think they’re too busy, take a chance and send them a message saying you’re thinking of them.
We can all use more self-compassion as we emerge from a pretty difficult time. It’s understandable why we might not have the quality of relationships we want right now! And we can make small steps toward creating connections that we want in our lives.
1Making Caring Common Project (2021). Harvard Graduate School of Education, https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america
Blog by: Jessie Everts, PhD, LMFT
Jessie Everts, PhD LMFT is a Wild Tree therapist and has written two books: Connecting with Loneliness: A Guided Journal, and Brave New Mom: A Survival Guide for Mindfully Navigating Postpartum Motherhood.
Photo credit: Andrew Neel from Pexels