Loneliness is quite an interesting topic. Whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert, we can all agree that alone time can be much needed. Now, the quantity and duration of the alone time will differ based on sociability. Still, this idea of being alone can interest and maybe jealousy for those who don’t get enough alone time. Conversely, when someone spends too much time alone, they can develop a phenomenon known as loneliness. Loneliness is a state of mind leaving people feeling empty, unwanted, and alone.
Unlike alone time, loneliness can result in a myriad of mental health concerns, which can then lead to health concerns. For example, chronic loneliness can lead to heart problems, depression, higher stress, decreased memory, substance misuse, and brain changes. Moreover, the global pandemic has exacerbated the effects of loneliness as many have had to quarantine, social distance, or have lost loved ones. National surveys have found that approximately 36 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 report feeling frequently or almost always lonely.
COVID-19 and Loneliness
It’s no secret we are living in unprecedented times brought on by COVID-19, which started its impacts in early 2020. One of the many precautions set forth by medical governing bodies is to maintain social distancing from other people, and this principle has been relatively maintained throughout the past two years, especially when one either has COVID-19 or is exhibiting symptoms. Moreover, vulnerable populations have been adhering to strict social distancing policies to prevent possible exposure since the start.
The implications of social distancing affect everyone differently, but a leading consequence is loneliness. Hoffart et al. (2020) found that individuals who were single and had a pre-existing mental illness were more susceptible to chronic loneliness; specifically, individuals with a depression diagnosis were more likely to suffer from loneliness compared to those with an anxiety diagnosis. However, individuals who engaged in rumination and worry, common symptoms of anxiety, were still at risk of chronic loneliness.
Consequences of Loneliness
Hawkley and Cacioppo (2010) reviewed the consequences of loneliness, defined as “a distressing feeling that accompanies the perceptions that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity of or quality of one’s social relationships.” They noted multiple domains affected by loneliness including physical health, mortality, mental health, and cognitive functioning. The authors further note that about 80% of our waking hours are commonly spent with others, so a significant reduction in human contact can have detrimental effects on one’s overall health. Specifically, chronic loneliness may lead to depressive symptoms, which can increase the risk the heart disease and blood pressure.
To cope, these individuals may engage in substance misuse which can further exacerbate health deterioration. Moreover, cognitively, social isolation can lead to cognitive decline and dementia. Researchers found loneliness can cause a decline in IQ, as well. The aforementioned examples are just some of the consequences documented throughout the literature; thus, remediation for chronic loneliness is necessary to prevent health decline caused by the effects of the pandemic.
How to Combat Loneliness
It’s clear from our literature summary that loneliness can cause a myriad of issues. Luckily, there are ways to combat loneliness, even during a global pandemic. While the obvious solution to loneliness is to connect with others, there can be limitations to this.
The apparent issue is the pandemic, but isolation can occur for other reasons too. For example, a family member of mine moved to the Caribbean for vet school where she was faced with isolation. We are fortunate that we live in a time where it’s easier to connect. Talking with a best friend who lives 1,000 miles away takes just a couple of clicks on the phone. Features on Netflix and Hulu allow people to watch the same show or movie while living in different states.
Virtual connection can help fill the need for communication, but loneliness stems deeper than just a desire to talk with others. We, as humans, have a need for touch. Touch starvation is linked with loneliness and all the mental health challenges associated with it. As infants, physical touch soothes us, which is why skin-to-skin contact is promoted. Moreover, in addition to skin-to-skin contact, the pressure from touch (i.e., hugs) has documented benefits such as stress reduction. If touch from another person is not available, similar benefits can be achieved through deep pressure stimulation or weighted blankets.
We’ve written extensively about the benefits of weighted blanket use. In sum, weighted blankets reduce sympathetic activity (the fight or flight response) and promote parasympathetic activity (rest and digest). Weighted blankets are theorized to help combat loneliness by simulating the pressure of a hug. Sleeping with a weighted blanket can mimic cuddling with a loved one.
In addition to managing loneliness through communication and mimicking human touch, other tips involve filling your time with purposeful activities. For example, set an agenda of tasks you’d like to accomplish for the day to have a sense of purpose for the day, which will inevitably help combat the loneliness. Moreover, we are creatures of habit, so keeping a structured routine will help mitigate symptoms of rumination and/or worry.
We wish you the best of luck during these unprecedented times. Stay safe, friends!