Together While Apart-Find a Way Through
By: Sara Hanson, B.S.W.
If loneliness was a problem before COVID-19 brought social distancing to every aspect of our lives, it goes without saying that it is an increasing area of concern now. In 2018, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 20% of Americans reported often or always feeling lonely. In a survey done by Cigna that same year, almost half of the 20,000 adults surveyed reported that they sometimes or always felt alone, while 40% responded sometimes or always feeling their relationships were not meaningful, and feeling isolated.
It is important to clarify that loneliness and isolation are not the same. While loneliness may occur at a higher rate in individuals who live alone, a person can live alone and feel comfortable in their solitude. Loneliness is the feeling of emotional pain or unhappiness when you do not have the social connection or relationships you need. Research has identified three areas in the experience of loneliness.
- Intimate loneliness is the desire for a partner to share a mutual affection and trust.
- Relational loneliness occurs when someone is longing for friendships that can provide a sense of companionship and support.
- Collective loneliness is the need for a feeling of community; people who share your values and interests and where you find a sense of belonging.
As the need to physically distance ourselves from one another continues, you may experience feelings of isolation and loneliness that are new for you, or you may have an increase in the intensity of these feelings if you already had them. The end result can be very detrimental. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United Sates and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, recommends these strategies for reducing the impact of loneliness:
- Spend at least 15 minutes a day talking or writing to a loved one. When this practice is done regularly it can improve your feelings of connectedness.
- Reduce the amount of distractions that can take your attention away from interactions with people. We spend a lot of time multi-tasking, scrolling through social media, etc., and this can affect how people perceive the importance of our interactions with them, and the quality of time we spend together.
- Identify ways to do good for others. It could be checking in on a neighbor or family member, sending someone a card or letter, or providing food for a person in need. Doing good for others can increase our feelings of community connection.
As research continues on how to address loneliness and reduce its impact both mentally and physically, it is important to understand that effective interventions will look different depending on the person, population, or situation. For school age children, a school system can work on programming to foster inclusion and teach students how to identify when a classmate might look lonely or in need of support. Some schools have incorporated a space in their playground areas, where a “Buddy Bench” is placed so that a child who would like someone to talk to can sit on the bench, signaling to classmates that they need support or someone to play with. For older adults, increasing the opportunity for social engagement through local recreation programs or senior centers has shown benefits in reported enjoyment in life and feeling less lonely. These strategies have proven beneficial, but the new struggle becomes, how do we increase socialization when we have to be apart?
Increasing opportunities for socialization is critical in combating loneliness. Another helpful tool is the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help individuals identify and work on negative thoughts contributing to their loneliness. Sometimes people struggle to share with others that they feel lonely, due to negative stigma attached to that experience. Loneliness can become a vicious cycle, where negative thinking can result in an individual feeling they are flawed, unlikeable, or somehow deserving of being alone. Sometimes when people already feel lonely, they have a hard time engaging in social interactions because their negative cognitions are causing them to withdraw further out of fear of being judged or thought less of. CBT can help address these cognitive distortions and improve their ability to connect with people. To quote Dr. Murthy:
"Quite simply, human relationship is as essential to our wellbeing as food and water. Just as hunger and thirst are our body’s ways of telling us we need to eat and drink, loneliness is the natural signal that reminds us when we need to connect with other people. There’s no cause for shame in that. Yet hunger and thirst feel much more acceptable to acknowledge and talk about than loneliness."
If loneliness is something you are struggling with, you are not alone. Behavioral Health Partners is here to help and is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment.
Please contact our office to schedule an appointment at (585) 276-6900.
Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety, and depression. Our team of mental health professionals can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.
Murthy, V. H. (2020). Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. New York, NY: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Tiwari, S. (2013). Loneliness: A disease? Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4), 320. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.120536
Frame, S. (2017). Julianne Holt-Lunstad Probes Loneliness, Social Connections. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e510562018-001
Novotney, A. (n.d.). The risks of social isolation. Retrieved May 26, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation
Simpson, B. (n.d.). How to Prevent Social Isolation from Making Loneliness Worse. Retrieved May 26, 2020, from https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/how-to-prevent-social-isolation-from-making-loneliness-worse.html
Keith Stein |