The Best Ways to Fight Loneliness
America has a loneliness problem.
A report released in 2020 found that more than three in five adults are lonely. Many say they feel left out, poorly understood or short on companionship.
Loneliness is associated with poor health outcomes including cognitive decline, depression and longer hospital stays. Social isolation coupled with stress has been linked to an increased risk of death from heart attacks.
Conversely, we know a strong social support system confers health benefits. With a trusted network of friends, you’re more likely to cope well with stress, adopt healthy behaviors and have fewer cardiovascular risks, to name just a few of the studied benefits.
At its core, loneliness is about feeling isolated and alone, even among family or friends. Note that it has nothing to do with being physically alone. You can feel lonely in a marriage. You can feel deeply connected and live alone. It boils down to the quality and quantity of your meaningful relationships.
Some of the reasons people become lonely relate to the constructs of modern life. Technology, social media and an always-on work culture swallow our time – leaving precious little of it to enjoy the company of friends and family. Loneliness may also be the unfortunate consequence of time marching on as family members move or friends pass away.
What loneliness isn’t: a character flaw, a weakness or a sign that you’re not liked.
Anyone can feel lonely, but it’s especially worrisome among seniors. They may have the hardest time addressing it due to limited mobility or limited opportunity. According to some research, social isolation and loneliness affect roughly one third to one half of seniors.
How do you know if you’re lonely? Your primary care physician can help. There are screeners, like the UCLA Loneliness Index, that physicians use to measure loneliness. Screeners ask simple questions, such as: How often do you feel that you have a lot in common with the people around you? How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
There is no instant cure for it, psychologists say, but there are some simple steps you can take to address loneliness. While many normal activities that can help reduce loneliness may be a challenge during the pandemic — there are still good ways to make connections that can help.
- Join an online group with similar interests.
- Have more, frequent virtual engagements with friends. Don’t just like their photo on Facebook; pick up the phone and call or have a video chat.
- Create a routine to check in with friends via phone or online.
- Volunteer remotely.
- Take the focus off your loneliness by learning something new or doing more things you enjoy. If you like walking in the park, do it more often. Taking online classes can take your mind off loneliness AND open up a new social world to you.
- Volunteer online. Sites like Volunteer Match can help you get started.
When the pandemic is over, try these tips to make new friends. [link to make friends article] Your primary care doctor can also help you address loneliness, through therapy and medication.
Medication. Loneliness is a common cause of discomfort, whether it exists independent of depression or as a symptom of depression. Either way, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) may help improve distressing feelings of social isolation.
Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy can work for those who are inclined to pursue it. One study found an eight-week, internet-based CBT treatment effectively reduced feelings of loneliness. More research would need to be done to say for sure whether CBT drove the improvement. However, we know CBT can help a broad range of mental health concerns.