6 Min Read

How to Deal (Cope) with Loneliness

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Everyone experiences loneliness from time to time. Many people become aware of feelings of loneliness around the holidays and during periods of acute stress. However, while the prevalence of loneliness is relatively high, people don’t always express feelings of loneliness and don’t always know how to cope with social isolation.

Over time, chronic loneliness can detrimentally affect health, leading to depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of other health consequences. According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.“

To combat the long-term effects of loneliness and social isolation, it’s essential to take steps to recognize and understand your feelings. Especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, surrounding yourself with meaningful relationships and taking care of your mental well-being are more important than ever.

How common are feelings of loneliness?

According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the prevalence of loneliness has increased in recent years. In a 2017 study, two in five Americans reported that they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful, while one in five respondents reported feeling lonely or socially isolated. 

Additionally, the so-called ‘epidemic of loneliness’ has been exacerbated by more Americans living alone within the last decade. Some of the most common predictors of loneliness include living in solitude, not being married, lacking participation in social groups, having fewer friendships, and lower socioeconomic status.

How does loneliness impact mental health?

According to Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, loneliness has a significant impact on mental health. While chronic loneliness can have long-term effects on adolescents and older adults, young adults are especially vulnerable to loneliness, according to the University of California. 

In addition to emotional pain, loneliness can affect people in many ways, including:

  • Depression: One longitudinal study found that lonely people tended to show more depressive symptoms, and lonely people and depressed people experienced alienation in social interactions.
  • Health consequences: The relationship between health and loneliness can go both ways: a lonely person may see their health worsen over time, but people who suffer from poor health, such as older people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, may end up feeling a higher degree of loneliness, according to New York University.
  • Physical pain: Research has shown that the areas of the brain that deal with alienation and social isolation are the same areas that process pain, explaining the correlation between loneliness and a “broken heart.“

To measure your loneliness, try using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item scale designed to measure the subjective experience of loneliness and feelings of social isolation. However, even if your loneliness score is low, it’s essential to keep in mind that a lack of social activity, intimacy, and close friendships can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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What should you do if you’re experiencing loneliness?

Loneliness can range from missing your close friends and family members to struggling to find meaning in social relationships. According to University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo, loneliness is a universal human experience—it’s completely natural to feel lonely from time to time. You shouldn’t blame yourself for your feelings.

If you’re feeling particularly low, the following tips can help you combat loneliness. It’s important to remember that different things work for different people. For the best results, experiment with different techniques to find what works for you and seek further support if you need it.

Take care of your body.

When you’re coping with loneliness, it can be tempting to focus on your mental health over your physical health. But physical health is just as important as mental health—and spending weeks in social isolation without getting any exercise can negatively affect your mental well-being.

Physical activity increases heart rate, which puts the body under stress. In response, your brain floods your body with endorphins, improving your mood, reducing your perception of pain, minimizing inflammation, boosting your immunity, and leaving you feeling energized.

According to Harvard Medical School, as little as 15 minutes of aerobic exercise each day is enough to release endorphins, strengthen your immune system, and leave you feeling more positive—both about the world and yourself. Additionally, research has consistently shown that regular physical activity can help combat anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

Especially if you live in solitude, it can be tempting to stay up all night and ignore your body’s need for sleep. However, sleep deprivation can lead to a decline in cognition. In other words, your brain doesn’t function properly without sleep. Sleep problems can range from irritability and low mood to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, high cortisol levels, and other serious health consequences.

Because disruptions caused by light exposure can play a significant role in your ability to sleep, it’s important to ensure that your bedroom is as dark as possible. Many electronic devices produce enough energy to disrupt your biological clock and using backlit screens before bed can confuse your brain and prevent the production of melatonin.

Another critical factor is setting aside enough time to wind down at the end of the night. Stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, make it difficult to wind down and disrupt your sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, even depressants like alcohol can make it challenging to get a good night’s sleep.

Surround yourself with loving social relationships.

The benefits of building a strong social network can be both long-lasting and far-reaching. Social interaction can improve our quality of life by increasing our immunity, illness recovery rates, and longevity. Social connections also help to sustain us emotionally, reducing stress, changing our outlook on life, and helping us feel better about ourselves.

If you’re feeling especially lonely, consider confiding in close friends or family members. We’re all human beings living in an unprecedented time—and expressing your thoughts and feelings to your social group can help you realize you’re not as lonely as you might think. If you’re unsure where to start, try sending a handwritten card, calling someone on the phone, or using Zoom or Facetime to stay connected.

If you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to friends or family members for support, consider joining a support group or searching for resources on social media to find friendship and companionship. To get started, try using your hobbies or interests to search for a relevant group on Facebook. Alternatively, the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers a wide range of support groups, including NAMI Connection and the NAMI Family Support Group.

Meanwhile, if you struggle to accept compliments or social support from your spouse, family members, or friends, try training yourself to say “thank you.“ Whenever possible, fight the urge to rebuff compliments and support, as this can help you interrupt negative self-talk, according to the New York Times.

Set aside some time to volunteer.

As a common type of loneliness, many people struggle to find meaning in their social relationships. Volunteering for a cause you believe in can help provide the same benefits as joining a support group, as you’ll be able to meet new people, be part of a group, and create new experiences. 

By finding opportunities to support causes you believe in, you can also enjoy the benefits of altruism. In the short term, you’ll get a quick fix—you completed what you set out to do, which can help instill pride and nurture your sense of self. Meanwhile, in the long term, when you work toward change and form meaningful social relationships with others, it can promote healthy self-esteem. Volunteering shows you that you’re useful and that you can make contributions to the world, whether big or small.

If you’re not sure what causes you’d like to support, try making a list or asking a friend or family member for recommendations. It could be something as small as volunteering at your local soup kitchen for a few hours or something as big as traveling abroad to help low-income communities. Once you find causes you feel strongly about, you can seek out opportunities to work toward change, establishing a strong foundation for your self-worth that you can continue to build on.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Whether you’re staying home because you’re at high risk or social distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19, loneliness can take a significant toll on your mental health. When anxiety, stress, and loneliness become overwhelming, it’s important to remember that help is always available.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or need immediate support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re struggling to cope with feelings of loneliness, experiencing sleep problems, or constantly feeling stressed, seeking professional help can help you find support and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Fortunately, besides local mental healthcare services, many therapists are currently offering teletherapy for those who prefer to stay at home. 

Some forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you change your thoughts and behaviors to help identify the type of loneliness you’re experiencing, reduce the degree of loneliness you’re feeling, and take actions to prevent loneliness. 

To get started, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a psychologist, therapist, social worker, or counselor you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the licensed therapists on the WithTherapy platform will help you build social relationships, combat feelings of loneliness, and improve your quality of life. 

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