A study by the American Psychological Association reveals a concerning trend: older adults are experiencing increasing levels of loneliness. However, chronic loneliness affects individuals across all generations. In fact, a separate 2018 study found that nearly half of all adults in the United States occasionally or consistently feel lonely, with 43% reporting a sense of isolation from others. So what is chronic loneliness and how do we combat it?
What is Chronic Loneliness
Loneliness is a prevalent issue, with approximately three out of five people identifying as lonely on a regular basis, according to Cigna's 2020 Loneliness Index. Chronic loneliness occurs when feelings of loneliness and uncomfortable social isolation go on for a long period of time. It's characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level. Loneliness is associated with depression, premature mortality, and unhappiness. Adults often feel lonelier compared to their school and college years due to the loss of daily interaction and communities.
It is important to differentiate between loneliness and depression. While they often coexist, loneliness is subjective and dependent on one's perceived connections, whereas depression entails low mood, energy, and concentration, affecting overall functioning. Loneliness may come and go, but depression persists for an extended period and significantly impacts an individual's ability to engage in daily activities.
Research has shown that chronic loneliness negatively affects physical health and well-being, with the impact likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Recognizing the severity of this issue, efforts must be made to reach out, connect, and combat loneliness collectively.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Loneliness
Feeling numb all the time:
Individuals experiencing chronic loneliness may find themselves feeling emotionally detached and empty. Emotions such as happiness, sadness, and excitement become less prominent, and attempts to uplift one's mood often prove ineffective.
Loneliness can lead to difficulty controlling emotions. Small inconveniences may trigger intense emotional responses, such as excessive crying or lashing out at others. Emotional volatility is common among those who suffer from depression, severe anxiety, and loneliness.
Feeling different from others:
Even in the presence of friends and family, individuals plagued by chronic loneliness may feel like outsiders. They struggle to connect with others and experience a sense of not belonging. Loneliness can create a barrier that prevents them from fully experiencing the warmth, friendship, and understanding of those around them.
Questioning the meaning and purpose of life:
Loneliness often prompts individuals to delve into introspection and contemplate life's meaning and purpose. This deep introspection may arise from a desire to confront and understand one's loneliness. Through this process, individuals may gain new insights and perspectives on life.
Chronic loneliness can manifest as constant fatigue and a lack of energy. Even simple tasks may feel overwhelming and draining. Procrastination becomes common as individuals struggle to find the motivation to complete daily activities
Engaging in unproductive behaviors:
Individuals experiencing chronic loneliness may resort to mindless activities such as excessive social media scrolling, video gaming, or engaging in unhealthy habits like overeating or overspending. These activities provide temporary distractions but ultimately reinforce feelings of emptiness and unfulfillment.
A concerning sign of chronic loneliness is neglecting personal well-being. Individuals may disregard basic hygiene routines, stop engaging in enjoyable activities, and allow their living space to become disorganized and messy. A sense of helplessness and purposelessness can contribute to the abandonment of self-care practices.
If any of these signs resonate with you or someone you know, it is essential to seek help from a mental healthcare professional. Recognizing the presence of chronic loneliness is the first step toward finding meaningful connections and improving mental well-being.
Ways to Combat Chronic Loneliness
Develop a positive relationship with yourself:
The most important step to take to combat loneliness, is to first develop a positive relationship with yourself and cultivate self-love. It is so important to become comfortable with oneself as a companion. This involves being honest with oneself, accepting one's past mistakes, and encouraging personal growth and self-improvement. Learning to develop a positive self-image is crucial, as low self-esteem can hinder forming meaningful relationships.
Seek emotional connections:
Human connections on emotional, mental, and spiritual levels are highly significant to our health. Meaningful relationships add value and purpose to our lives and allow oneself to feel connection on a deeper more spiritual level. Becoming the proactive person in relationships is crucial to combat loneliness. Taking the initiative to make plans and invite friends is necessary. Overcoming social anxiety is another vital aspect of combating loneliness. Learn to engage meaningfully with others and give back to the community, such as through volunteer work.
In the absence of external encouragement, you need to become your own source of motivation and support. Believe in yourself, push through challenges, and actively seek personal development. Consider making changes. Asses your environment and make necessary changes if you are unhappy or feeling extremely isolated. Setting clear goals and plans is an easy way to encourage yourself and make a change. Making concrete, specific plans that will happen with or without others increases the likelihood of social engagement. You can also try tracking the last time you interacted with friends and loved ones to help maintain frequent and meaningful connections. Finally, another goal to try is learning to improve your time management skills. Mastering this skill can provide more time for social interactions while also getting your daily tasks done. Accomplishing these small goals will give you a sense of purpose that increases your self-image.
Chronic loneliness is an increasing concern affecting individuals across all generations. By acknowledging its impact, understanding the causes, and taking proactive steps, we can help combat this epidemic.