Loneliness... A New Silent Killer
Updated: Mar 18
So many survey results related to loneliness have been presented throughout the past two years, and the results are sad, but predictable. Looking at the numbers, it's safe to say that anywhere between a half, to three quarters of those surveyed, feel, or have felt loneliness, in the past-two years or more. Not surprising, right. #COVID 🤢 .
The more concerning news here, is the number of young adults, adolescents, and children who indicate that they are feeling lonely. Certainly, recent isolation measures have impacted this, but the reality is that our new normal of communicating through social media and technology has been creating such feelings long before COVID.
It might feel easy to think, "Well, get out there and get some friends kid." "Get off your screen and be social." "Stop being such a wuss and learn to depend on yourself." Or, the age-old, "It's a normal kid thing, they'll get over it once they get back to..."
But maybe they won't?
Recent research in the area of loneliness has suggested that lack of social connections (be it intimate, friendly, or community connections) could impose the same health consequences as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.1 😲
Additionally, feelings of loneliness and being socially isolated could be responsible for health conditions worse than those caused by obesity or lack of physical activity.1
Put this in perspective people: If you are experiencing frequent or constant feelings of loneliness, even if you are an active, healthy, non-smoker, who sleeps 8-hours per night, you can experience the same health outcomes as the couch potato who is munching on some deep-fried goodness, while smoking a half-pack of darts each day. WTF, am I right?!
One might think that the impacts would be more notable among the really elderly populations (typically because many of them are isolated, in some regard). But, NOPE. Studies have found that social isolation is more predictive of death in those with an average age YOUNGER than 65 years.2
Loneliness vs. Being Alone
We don't have to be 'alone' to be lonely. I spent most of my life feeling very lonely, despite being surrounded by a loving family, a large social circle with many close friends, and being on various sport teams. And I certainly couldn't tell anyone, because no one would have understood how someone in my position could feel lonely - so I sat on it alone. Making it more lonely.
I later found out (near age 40), that I was living with ADHD and an anxiety and depression disorder. Makes sense, now. I feel much better now, after having undergone various types of treatment, including much needed therapy to gain understanding and acceptance of my own brain function, and build coping mechanisms.
But it sucked before... And I know it's probably sucking like that, right now, for a lot of youth, and adults, alike. Loneliness often presents itself as fatigue, sadness, lack of self-esteem, stress, feeling empty or void of emotion, feeling rejected or out of place, and feeling like people wouldn't really notice if you were not around. Most times, people don't recognize that the root of these other feelings is loneliness.
It's also important to note, that we can be alone, and not feel lonely. For someone who enjoys being alone, has positive connections they can reach out to when they feel the need, and who doesn't feel the implications of loneliness, their aloneness is considered solitude. Recognizing the distinction is necessary, perhaps for your own wellbeing, but certainly if you are considering who around you may be suffering from loneliness. Just because someone is surrounded by a crowd with a smile on their face, doesn't mean they are connected.
What Can We Do?
While the research hasn't really offered sure-fire interventions to help address loneliness, social science certainly provides some key considerations that are likely to be beneficial. If you want to help someone who might be struggling with loneliness, my advice is this:
Ask. And then listen. Sometimes people don't recognize that they are feeling lonely, until they are made to think about it. So simply ask. Maybe, "I've noticed you haven't quite been yourself lately, have you been feeling lonely at all?" Or, "I wanted to check-in to see how you're doing. I notice you've got a big social group, which is great, but I wanted to know if you're feeling connected, or whether you've been feeling lonely at all, even with everyone around?" They may look at you and give you a simple, "I'm fine." Or, if it's your child, a "Why are you being so weird? 🤣 I'm fine!" Either way, you've opened the door for future communication. So you can leave it with, "Well if you ever do feel alone, know I'm here to talk."
Act. Often, people simply need to know that they aren't alone. Opening the door, and letting them in to talk can be incredibly helpful. Hearing that others are feeling the same way, can actually help them feel connected. You don't need to necessarily fix it for them, so simply telling them you understand, and you can imagine it would feel lonely, is enough. But rather than wallowing in the connection of aloneness, it's a great idea to help them find something they are passionate about, that can connect them with either a community, a group of peers, or even some special time with loved-ones. Even right now, connecting with different specialty groups online is enough to get someone out of a lonely place.
Grow. Sometimes people feel alone because they don't have the skills required to connect in social groups. If this is the case, it's a more difficult avenue to move along, but it's not impossible to help them build the missing skills. A coach, or therapist, or even some leadership or emotional intelligence courses are available to help. A coach or therapist are best, however, because the best help is to become more self-aware so we can better understand where we excel, and where we are limited, and then to start building the skills. Otherwise, it's difficult to enact personal change.
Do your part to help those around you feel more connected, today. Take a moment from your day to reach out to children, adolescents, peers, adults, or elderly, who may be feeling lonely or isolated. Say hi. Ask how they are doing. But when you do, have the time, and be prepared to listen. It can make all the difference in the world to someone who feels isolated on the inside.
The most important thing to remember is, that even when we feel the most alone, there is ALWAYS someone out there who is willing to help.
If you are feeling alone, or maybe you aren't sure if it's loneliness, the information provided in the links below might help. http://www.ponokafcss.net/socialisotools.pdf https://edmonton.cmha.ca/documents/coping-with-loneliness/ Alberta also has a Mental Help Healthline (confidential and anonymous) that you can call, if you are feeling lonely and aren't sure how to cope. You can get further information, here: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/findhealth/Service.aspx?id=6810&serviceAtFacilityID=1047134
1Mihalopoulos, C., Le, L. K.-D., Chatterton, M. L., Bucholc, J., Holt-Lunstad, J., Lim, M. H., & Engel, L. (2020). The economic costs of loneliness: a review of cost-of-illness and economic evaluation studies. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 55(7), 823–836. 2Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.