People, in general, started to become more withdrawn during the past decades, but today, with COVID-19 and its many social distancing rules, people experience loneliness more than ever before. But what exactly is loneliness, and more importantly, how can it affect human mental health? Can we battle loneliness and how? Let’s find out in the following text:
What is loneliness?
Humans have an innate need to form meaningful connections and belong to a community. Simply put, when our human connection need goes unmet, people become lonely. Loneliness is followed by feelings of distress and isolation. There’s also something called aloneness, which is different because a person is alone but not lonely.
Is it the same as social isolation?
Social isolation is something we’ve heard a lot about in the past two years. Social isolation is caused by certain circumstances that push people to be isolated from others or choose self-isolation. Many things can lead to self-isolation:
- Violence in the family: people in abusive relationships choose to avoid contact with friends and family in order to keep their circumstances a secret.
- Death of a loved one: it’s common for people to isolate themselves after they lose a family member or a friend (especially present in seniors who have lost many people in their age group).
- Mental health issues: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and other mental health issues often cause or are caused by social isolation.
- Living in a remote location: people who live in remote areas or those who were forced by job duties (military service, for instance) to live away from their friends and family can often experience loneliness and social isolation.
- Lack of mobility and disability: certain physical challenges might make it hard or impossible for people to have a normal social life. Some people who experience disability also experience shame connected with their condition, so they choose to isolate themselves. Hearing and vision loss also might create a sense of isolation in individuals.
- Social media: even though social media allows many people to communicate with friends and family, it can also be a path to isolation since for many, social media is a replacement for in-person communication and meaningful conversation.
- Job issues: we live in a society that considers it very shameful to lose employment or be unable to find one, so people choose to self-isolate.
Effects of loneliness
In many cases, loneliness can cause people to further withdraw and deepen their sense of isolation. People bothered by loneliness spend time on their own, gradually losing the sense of how to spend time in a social setting, so they withdraw and cause their lives to shrink even more. In many cases, loneliness and depression are tightly bound to the point where it’s impossible to say which causes which. Some people also suffer from anxiety in social situations, so if you’re forced to socialize and learn new social skills, it’s easy to see why people choose to avoid such events. Social anxiety doesn’t help loneliness, and everyone who experiences it might benefit from exercising their inner resilience and making an effort to socialize.
In some cases, loneliness stems from poor quality relationships. The worst loneliness is sparked by spending time surrounded by wrong people and not feeling connected to your closest circle.
What to do when you’re feeling lonely?
If you want to boost your social circle and increase the feelings of belonging and wellbeing, the best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out to others. Even the smallest of baby steps will make a difference. You can use social media for starters and do some online networking by joining a group to connect with like-minded people. And don’t think there are only Instagram and Facebook out there. You can easily find a community for mature adults where you can connect with other members. A platform like this has virtual events, different groups and activities—perfect for seniors who want to connect in the world of the pandemic.
As you grow your confidence, you can sign up for a class in photography, fitness, hiking, running, cooking, woodworking—whatever interests you. Taking up a team sport is a great way to become a part of the team, get exercise and improve your mental health. If your mobility is limited, a table game might be the right thing for you. There are groups that play scrabble, Bridge or Canasta.
Finally, you can also consider volunteering your time. This activity will not just get you in contact with many people, but also give you an immense sense of fulfillment and usefulness. Many fire-fighting services, red cross, beach lifeguards and animal rescue are just some of the organizations that take in volunteers all year round.
What to do if someone you know is lonely?
Today, loneliness can affect anyone, and talking about this fact is more than useful. If you notice someone you know is experiencing loneliness, you can help them battle it by inviting them to social gatherings. You can also offer companionship the best way you can by calling, texting and offering to help with some chores, home improvements and work troubles.
When to seek professional help?
Prolonged loneliness can result in different symptoms, and if any of the following appear in your life, you are advised to seek out professional help: confusion, hallucinations, excessive fear or anger, extreme mood swings, extreme changes in eating or sleeping patterns, unexplained physical issues, depression, and substance abuse. If it’s impossible to meet with a health professional in person due to restrictions, you can connect with them by phone or video call. People who have been lonely or isolated for a long time might find it hard to ask for help, so if you know someone who might need assistance to reach out, help them. You might play an important role in lessening isolation and its negative effects on the individual and community.
Loneliness is an invisible but serious opponent to fight. If you experience its unpleasant effects, you might benefit from sharing your feelings with someone you trust. Early intervention is the best way to prevent the serious harm of loneliness on your mental well-being. Humans are social beings, so let’s all socialize a bit more.