In the wake of Valentine’s Day, it is important to remember the 49% of Americans who do not celebrate it  and 46% who struggle with loneliness. The problem is so great that it has even been called a national epidemic.

To be clear, loneliness is different from living alone or simply being alone or desiring solitude.  Loneliness is the experience of sadness and desperation which comes from not having intimate human connections. Loneliness can spring from isolation, from being alone or not having friends but is also true that even married people or members of large families or communities can be lonely and feel its pain.

It is important to understand the loneliness is not simply an unpleasant feeling.  Loneliness can cause serious medical complications and has been correlated with shortening life spans.  Surprisingly. loneliness is a greater risk to longevity than smoking a half pack of cigarettes a day or being obese.

Likewise, it is a myth that the elderly are the most lonely.  in fact, young and young adults are the two most at-risk populations.  Research suggests that this may, in part, be due to their heavy involvement  with social media.  Indeed, studies show that the more time an individual spends on sites such as Facebook, the more likely they are to experience loneliness.   Some believe that the constant flow of negative comparisons in which individuals feel that their photos or lives are not as good as the ones they see posted leads to a greater sense of alienation, isolation and depression.

All of this is simply to point out that, in spite of the cyber-connection we experience through the internet and the great information highway, our  hi-tech world can add to one’s sense of detachment and isolation .  What is important to understand is that despite our technological advances in communication and information sharing,  humans still need, real , face-to- face contact and connections.

That said , although numerous psychological studies reveal that the more human connections a person has, the less likely s/he is to suffer from loneliness, simply belonging is not enough. The kind of connection we are talking about here is not measured by numbers. For, example,people who have thousands of Facebook friends report being very lonely.  It is not how many friends you have but the quality of those a relationships.  Having even one good friend who you trust and with whom you can be honest and feel cared about and supported by is the key to being connected and makes all the difference in the world.

So, if you are in a lonely place, the first thing to know is that it is not a terminal condition. Here are some tips to remember if you struggle with loneliness:

  1. Understand why you feel lonely.  Not all loneliness is the same. Some loneliness is transient and the result of holiday hype or losses such as divorces or death.  Others may be more chronic and have to do with trauma and attachment issues.
  2. If you are on social media a lot , cut back.
  3.   Attend to  self-care.  You need to be happy with yourself and, in fact, taking good care of yourself. The resolution of loneliness is not to find someone else to take care of you.  In addition to checking out other important self-care factors (sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress levels and management, etc.) it is also important to review your social support network and assess just how connected you feel.
  4. Be intentional about building a support network.  Think about opportunities you have to meet and make friends.  Be honest.  Do you ignore or overlook opportunities to make connections ? If so, do something different.  Even something as simple as getting and taking care of a pet , like a cat or dog, can expand your awareness and create new interactions.
  5. Don’t worry about not “feeling” like it.  Fake it until you make.  Sometimes just going through the motions can lead to unexpected breakthroughs and rewards.
  6. Try volunteering and giving to others.  Many times loneliness and feeling undervalued or not productive go hand in hand.  Getting involved in something you view as valuable can raise your self esteem and make connecting easier.
  7. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.  Many times, loneliness and social isolation are signs of a  depression which may require therapeutic and/ or medication to resolve.

Although loneliness is a painful and even debilitating experience, it is important to remember that it does not have to be a permanent condition.  There are many resources available that can help. Don’t be afraid to take that first step and reach out.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC , FELLOW AAPC              2 17 2019

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