Why Do I Feel So Alone?: Understanding the Loneliness Epidemic and Cultivating Connection as the Antidote

I was recently on a retreat for work and decided to go early to have some time for myself. As a parent and partner, I later realized this was the longest time I’d been alone in years. I didn’t have anything planned, and it was raining and, at times, totally delightful. I read a whole book, walked in the rain, stopping whenever and wherever my heart desired, and slept. And then, there were moments of intense loneliness. It was a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a long while, and it was uncomfortably familiar. There was the second rainy afternoon when I found myself wanting to stay planted firmly in bed while I watched and heard groups of friends walking to the nearby pool. And then, there were moments during the retreat when I was surrounded by people I was meeting for the first time. I’ve never been eager to engage in networking, but doing so after spending a day and a half alone seemed even more difficult. While I wasn’t alone in a room of 50+ people, initially, I felt incredibly disconnected and lonely.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is one of the most common human experiences but is also one of the least talked about. According to research, 80% of people under 18 and 40% of adults over 65 report being lonely at least sometimes. Still, when we feel lonely, it’s hard to believe that anyone will understand what we’re going through, so people often suffer in silence. Loneliness is also hard to define because it can seem so subjective, but when we dig in, it becomes more apparent that there are similarities in how people experience loneliness across the board.

The US Surgeon General’s (Dr. Vivek Murthy’s) Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community defines loneliness as “A subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections, where inadequate refers to the discrepancy or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.” In a  podcast about the topic, Dr. Murthy adds that loneliness feels physical, “like a sense of despair.” He offers that people experiencing loneliness feel invisible and inconsequential. Researchers often refer to loneliness as a distressing feeling. The definition frequently references the individual’s perception of their experience, which is tricky because suggesting that our perception influences loneliness indicates that if we change our perception, we may not feel lonely. Instead, it can help to consider that our perception can be likened to our experience and relationship to our needs. With that framework, we can understand loneliness as a response to an unmet need. 

Loneliness tells us that something we need for survival, human and social connection, is missing in our lives. Research is clear about our need for connection and that we are wired to connect from birth. Evolutionary studies and theories focus on the evolutionary advantage of connection and acknowledge how not being connected could be very dangerous. Connection historically meant protection and access to resources, while being alone could mean being vulnerable to threats and danger. While we may now have access to resources and safety that we didn’t have earlier, we still need connection, and our bodies and nervous systems may feel threatened without it. This is what our body is experiencing when we feel lonely; our body is under stress, a response to the threat of feeling disconnected.

What is the Difference Between Solitude and Loneliness?

While you can feel lonely when alone or physically isolated from others, loneliness is a complex emotional state that arises when you feel misunderstood, disconnected, or lack meaningful connections to others, regardless of the actual presence of people around you. Not feeling connected or understood can lead to emptiness, isolation, and despair. 

However, it is essential to distinguish between loneliness and solitude, as the two often get conflated. One can be “alone” and not necessarily be “lonely.” Taking time to engage in active solitude is an effective way to practice introspection and cultivate a healthy self-relationship. Additionally, some people feel most alone in moments when they’re actually surrounded by others, so being around another person or people is generally not indicative of how lonely one might feel. Most individuals will struggle with loneliness at some point in their lives, and yet, even though it is practically universal, everyone’s experience of loneliness is unique. 

Why Are We Becoming More Lonely?

Many components are influencing loneliness and what is now being termed “the loneliness epidemic.” It became a topic during the pandemic when we were all isolating, and loneliness seemed inescapable. However, evidence suggests that rates of loneliness have been increasing since the 1970s, and Dr. Murthy first brought this to the forefront as a public health concern in 2017.

As our society becomes increasingly modern and digital, we may understand loneliness as the byproduct. We have experienced changes in family structures, like increases in single-parent households and smaller family sizes, which can impact the quality and quantity of social interactions within families. Busy lifestyles and competing demands may limit opportunities for meaningful connections among family members. And while technology has made communication more accessible, it has also altered the essence of social interactions. We have come to rely on social media, digital communication, and virtual connections, which may offer some connection but often do not allow us to develop the depth of connection we actually need. Also, social media use can contribute to social comparison, feelings of inadequacy, and decreased well-being.

Additionally, while working remotely allows for flexibility and the chance to spend more time at home, that doesn’t necessarily mean more time for connection. We often work longer hours in our current world, which can mean social isolation and a lack of prospects for spontaneous social interactions. And working from home can deprive us of developing and cultivating relationships with colleagues, further exacerbating loneliness.

When we imagine the archetypal “lonely” person, we might think of an older adult who lives alone and doesn’t leave their home other than to run the occasional errand. While older adults do struggle with loneliness and are heavily impacted by social isolation, there is research that shows an inverse relationship between age and loneliness. A 2020 study found that while 79% and 71% of the Gen Z and Millennial respondents considered themselves lonely, only 50% of the Baby Boomers felt the same way. This further supports the theory that technology, social media, and remote work drive these figures. Some research also suggests that older adults have had time to develop coping skills to allow them to manage time alone or apart, while adolescents are still working to develop these skills and may struggle more with loneliness as they may experience it as rejection. 

Loneliness can also result from life transitions and losing access to different social support systems. This can occur when we leave school, change jobs, start or end relationships, move, etc. Often, this experience is acute and temporary, and over time, we can establish and cultivate relationships that meet our needs. Chronic loneliness, however, can take an even more significant toll and can be challenging to address.

How Does Loneliness Impact Your Mental Health?

Loneliness can exacerbate any mental health challenge and is often both a symptom and a contributing factor to mental illnesses. Researchers report that loneliness is strongly associated with depression, and individuals who feel lonely are at a higher risk of developing depressive symptoms. Conversely, those who are depressed will often isolate and withdraw from social relationships and, therefore, become more lonely. Similarly, there is a strong relationship between social anxiety and loneliness, as many people wind up self-isolating as a result of their social anxiety, which makes them feel more lonely. These same individuals are yearning for connection and community. Loneliness has also been linked to sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep, disrupted sleep patterns, and poor sleep quality. These sleep disturbances can further aggravate loneliness and impact overall mental health.

The link between depression and loneliness has also been attributed to the changes in cognition and emotional processing caused by loneliness. A recent study using functional MRI was able to show that lonely individuals’ neural responses were atypical compared to their peers, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with shared perspectives and subjective understanding, indicating lonely people literally process the world differently. 

In some instances, the hopelessness and despair felt by many who struggle with loneliness can create even more severe mental health outcomes. According to studies, loneliness often serves as one of the strongest indicators of suicidal ideation as it alters individuals’ perception of the emotional ties and the amount of social support they truly have, making them feel alone and unwanted.     

How Does Loneliness Impact Your Physical Health?

The biology of connection and disconnection is related to stress. If being disconnected from others activates a fear response, we may have a surge in hormones like epinephrine, and our body is flooded with elevated cortisol levels. This is meant to increase our blood pressure and heart rate to prepare us to respond to a threat. Unfortunately, experiencing this for a prolonged period can significantly impair the immune response. People who are lonely also have poorer sleep, which causes them to wake frequently and struggle to get deep REM sleep. This makes sense if we understand that sleeping lightly is a survival response designed to ensure that we are prepared to react when we are at risk.

There is a significant body of evidence that shows that loneliness can have adverse effects on physical health. An astonishing meta-analysis from 2015 found that socially isolated people had a nearly 30% increased risk of mortality before the age of 65. Loneliness contributes to stress, which causes inflammation in the body that can impact cardiovascular health. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association in 2022 that reviewed multiple studies found a 29% increased risk for heart attack and 32% increased risk for stroke in patients who reported loneliness and social isolation. These findings were also linked to worse prognosis in those who already had coronary heart disease. Researchers theorize the reasons for this could be that those who are lonely may be more likely to practice unhealthy behaviors, such as minimal movement, substance use (including smoking), and poor dietary habits. 

How Can We Mitigate Loneliness?

Having had the significance of the problem impressed upon you, you may now ask yourself “What can I do if I am suffering from loneliness?” Loneliness is not an easy problem to solve, as much as we may wish that it were. Nonetheless, now that we better understand how common loneliness is and its implications, there is hope that we can address it and address it together.

Name What You’re Feeling:

As with any challenging emotion, the first step is acknowledging what you’re feeling. Unfortunately, loneliness can be difficult to admit because it is not desirable. When they feel lonely, some people may feel ashamed or believe that if they are lonely, it’s a reflection of their worth or abilities. If we imagine loneliness as a signifier of a need, it can function similarly to our stomach growling when we feel hungry or the feeling of intense thirst. On the one hand, we understand that we need to eat and stay hydrated, and it can help to recognize that connection is just another human need. And yet, I know that when my stomach growls, I can feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, so I can appreciate how hard it can be to acknowledge feeling lonely.

While you may ultimately need to name your feeling of loneliness to others to address it, it’s okay to just start with yourself. 

Offer Yourself Compassion:

If we can put loneliness into perspective and recognize how common it is, it may be easier to offer ourselves understanding instead of blaming ourselves for feeling lonely. It can also be helpful to consider the impacts of modern society, technology, and how we structure our lives. If you’re feeling lonely, it is not a referendum on you as a person, and it doesn’t mean you are not worth connecting with. Treat yourself with the care and kindness you deserve and that you’d offer others. 

Better understanding and being careful with your self-talk can also influence your experience when you are alone. If you can offer yourself care and kindness when you’re alone, over time, it may also become more accessible to experience solitude when you’re alone, as your relationship with yourself will likely improve. In solitude, you can reconnect with yourself, have more clarity on your thoughts and emotions, and develop inner peace.

Use It:

When we can tune in to our bodies and recognize that we are starting to feel hungry or thirsty, ideally, we will tend to our bodies and nourish them. And ideally, we would do this before we are starving or dehydrated. Similarly, if we can tune in to our feelings of loneliness and recognize that our needs are not being met, we can begin to honor our need for connection. Of course, this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, when we feel lonely, we may also withdraw due to self-blame and shame. But if you wouldn’t feel ashamed for feeling thirsty, why feel ashamed for feeling lonely?

It can help to consider when you last felt connected and to consider the relationships that allow you to feel seen and understood. The antidote for loneliness is deep and authentic relationships in which you can be yourself and feel secure. Sometimes, these relationships aren’t available, and sometimes, we may find that we need more of these relationships. While it isn’t the cure for loneliness, one way to begin managing it is to cultivate the connections that are available. That may mean initiating a conversation with the person in front of you in the grocery line or introducing yourself to the neighbor who just moved in. Connections are available all around, and given the frequency of loneliness, most of us are hungry to connect. 

Sometimes, we need help connecting and caring for our loneliness, and if that’s the case for you, seeking the support of a therapist may also be worthwhile. In therapy, we can practice being our most authentic, vulnerable selves while connecting with another person and exploring which other relationships we want to cultivate. 

In my own experience of responding to emails, taking care of chores, and shuttling my children around, a retreat for work provided both a rare opportunity for solitude and moments of loneliness – a reminder of the universal human need for connection. As we navigate the complexities of modern life, it’s critical to connect with ourselves and each other. Through compassion, understanding, and a willingness to reach out, we can mitigate the profound impact of loneliness, improving our mental and physical health and the quality of our lives. We hope you contact us if you need help cultivating relationships and responding to loneliness. We are here and ready to connect with you.

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