The Loneliness Epidemic, Causes And Effects, And How To Deal With Loneliness

By: Jenny Chang

Updated May 21, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Audrey Kelly, LMFT

Humans have an innate need to belong. We have been living, hunting, and eating in tribes for thousands of years, and we are all born with the primal desire to connect. However, it has become increasingly apparent that we are living in a loneliness epidemic.

Many of us feel perpetually lonely, even in an age in which communication with each other has never been quicker, easier, and more convenient. And it is not just those who live by themselves who can experience chronic aloneness; people surrounded by others every day, in a committed marriage, or have hundreds of Instagram followers or Facebook friends can still feel a deep sense of loneliness.

The Loneliness Epidemic

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Although we live in a technologically advanced era, there has been a sharp increase in feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States alone, with one in four Americans reporting that they rarely feel understood. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review, "During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not hearted disease or diabetes; it was loneliness."

Although loneliness has no discrimination or prejudice, affecting people of all ages, races, and backgrounds, it is more likely to impact young and older adults. Research has shown that a third of seniors feel lonely in the U.S., while 10 percent of people from the ages of 16-24 in the U.K. reported that they were always or often lonely. It is the number one fear of young people, according to the 2016 Viceland UK Census, beating losing a job or a home.

It is a troubling issue that affects the well-being of humanity and impacts the health care system, and uses tax dollars for health care facilities. There is no easy solution to this complicated pandemic, and authorities consider it a serious public health concern.

The Causes Of Loneliness

Many factors can contribute to feelings of pervasive and deep loneliness.

It may arise during significant and transitional stages in life, like moving away from home, having a new baby, or starting college.

Some have blamed the rise of social media, which can decrease the quality of real-life relationships and feed feelings of isolation. According to Cigna's U.S. Loneliness Index, two in five people confess that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated from others.

Poor social skills are another possible contributing factor. Those who struggle to connect with others in real life often turn to their phones to quench their need for social bonds. A survey found that people who logged in for more than two hours per day were lonelier than individuals who only used social media for half an hour per day.

Individualism is another possible reason why loneliness is rising. There is pressure, particularly in the Western world, to be independent, autonomous, and unique. Feeling the need to "make it on your own," people steer away from community and cooperation and fuel competition and comparison instead. The push to work long hours to succeed and rise above everyone else can result in burnout, anxiety, and loneliness.

The Effects Of Loneliness On Physical And Mental Health

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While fleeting loneliness may not seriously impact a person's health, persistent isolation can be insidious and has numerous adverse effects on a person's overall well-being.

People who suffer from chronic loneliness may feel that they do not have anyone to turn to when they need help, that they don't belong anywhere, or that their relationships are superficial. They struggle with a profound sense of worthlessness, lack of control, and emptiness. And because loneliness triggers a fight-or-flight response from the brain, they feel that they are in perpetual harm or danger, leading to feelings of anger, irritability, and fear. This further isolates and disconnects them from the connection they so desperately need.

This growing epidemic is linked with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies and can result in harmful behaviors. This includes excessive technology use, substance abuse, and self-harm. It is also associated with reduced cognitive functions in the areas of productivity, creativity, and reasoning.

Physiologically, loneliness not only harms the quality of sleep and increases stress hormones but can lead to premature death and serious illnesses. Because loneliness compromises the immune system, it is connected to arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. People are twice as likely to develop if they have feelings of loneliness.

10 Ways To Deal With Loneliness

Loneliness is serious and permeating, but the good news is that it can be combatted. It is worth trying out these tips to see which works most effectively for you when dealing with loneliness.

  1. Notice your "negative" thoughts. Be aware of your thoughts as they come up and learn to observe them without judgment. Remember that they are not truths but simply suggestions which you have control over. Each time you think that you will always feel alone or never find someone you connect with, allow these thoughts to drift away and think of something helpful instead. For example, remind yourself that "This feeling is not permanent" and "There are people out there who want to know and love me."

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  1. Build a network of strong connections. Over and over again, studies have emphasized that the key to a happy, long life is the quality of your connections to other people. Put time and effort into the people closest to you by meeting with them regularly, asking them deep questions, celebrating significant life events, and being a good listener. The ones who are worth investing in will reciprocate.
  2. Give back. Counterintuitive as it sounds, giving support to others can help foster connection, build new relationships, and boost your overall mood. Offer to babysit for a friend or neighbor, seek opportunities to volunteer, ask if you can look after a friend's dog, or visit people in nursing homes.
  3. Make your hobbies social. If you like reading, consider joining a local book club. Instead of exercising at the gym or home, ask a friend if they would like to work out with you. Or, even better, create your group of people with similar interests-social service platform MeetUp helps you connect with others who share passions such as photography, writing, or language learning.
  4. Seek the help of a professional. Talking to someone who understands and cares can help you feel significantly less lonely, and therapy is a good way to do that. Not only can a licensed mental health professional give you the empathy you need, but help you develop plans and implement ways in which you can ease the loneliness in your own life.
  5. Get creative and show it. Maybe you are unable to elaborate on your feelings, but you can express them creatively. Paint, write, dance, perform-find a way to interpret your experience through art. When you show others what you have created, it can spark and strengthen connection through mutuality and shared experience.
  6. Show yourself kindness and compassion. While it is important to find acceptance and love from others, it is just as important to show it to yourself. This includes repeating positive affirmations to yourself, eating well, or treating yourself to something you have wanted for a long time. Investing in self-care is a powerful way of turning the feelings of loneliness into an opportunity to know and love yourself more.
  7. Ask yourself the hard questions. There are many kinds of loneliness, and sometimes identifying what it is you are missing in your life can be the catalyst for change. Do you feel lonely because of a lack of quality friendships, or do you feel lonely because you miss the presence of a romantic partner? It is also important to ask yourself if the people you have in your life now are the kinds of people you want to be like, or at the very least, are meeting some of your needs for care, intimacy, and trust.
  8. The power of a hug cannot be underestimated. Physical touch can lower the body's stress response, help fight off inflammation, and release oxytocin in the brain. In other words, touch can strengthen your connections with other people and create feelings of intimacy while simultaneously easing feelings of isolation.

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  1. Come up with a plan. When loneliness hits, who are the people in your life that you can talk to? What activities can you do? What are the positive affirmations that you can repeat to yourself? Whether it is talking to a trusted friend, going to a yoga class, or reminding yourself that you are valuable and deserving of deep connection, it is worth coming up with a plan of action to get you through the lonely times.

Feeling lonely is a sign that important, innate needs within you are not being met-needs that include connection, intimacy, and shared experience. It is important to remember that even though the loneliness may feel incessant, it does not mean that it will be this way forever. Rather than succumbing to feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy, see loneliness as a chance to build resiliency, create new connections in unexpected places, and as a challenge that you can and will overcome through persistence and patience.


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