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Just How Serious is the 'Loneliness Epidemic?’

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When we’ve got a cold, we will rest up, make ourselves a cup of tea and maybe take some cold and flu tablets. When we sprain an ankle, we’ll ice it and prop it up with a pillow. But what do we do when we are feeling lonely? When there is no one in our lives — friends or family — who really understand us or the way we feel?

Loneliness is a feeling of distress or emotional turmoil that people experience when there is a discrepancy between the way their social relationships are and the way they would like them to be. It may be that one feels they have no one to turn to or no one with whom they truly connect. It may be that the relationships in their lives do not meet their expectations or needs, or it may be that their relationships are not meaningful in some fundamental way. As humans, social interactions cut to the core of our very existence. This dates all the way back to the days of the cave men in which they depended on each other to attain the basic necessities required for survival, such as gathering food or for protection. Being a part of a group and having these social relationships was essentially a matter of life or death. While these circumstances may differ in today’s society, having social connections is still an essential part of human life and has even been found to be consequential to both our physical and mental well-being.

So, are we facing a loneliness epidemic? Just how many people feel chronically lonely?

A recent survey of Australian adults found that on average, one in four adults experience loneliness, with one in two adults feeling lonely for at least one day in a week. Over half (nearly 55%) of the population also stated they felt they lacked companionship at least sometimes. The results of this survey also suggested that higher levels of loneliness were associated with poorer levels of psychological well-being, poorer physical health status and a poorer quality of life in general. This is consistent with previous research that has suggested loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

So, why do we feel so lonely? Well, while it’s difficult to ascertain the exact cause for feelings of loneliness, there are a few factors to consider.

1. Work culture.

We now live in a culture in which many of us are extremely dialed in on our work. While having a strong work ethic is a great attribute, it appears that for some people, this work ethic might be so strong that any time spent not working toward a purpose or goal feels like wasted time. This means there is little time left to speak freely with others, share ideas, thoughts or even engage in idle conversation that often forms the foundation of meaningful relationships.

2. Social anxiety.

Unsurprisingly, people who experience more social anxiety tend to also be lonelier. One in four Australians experience high levels of social interaction anxiety and one in two Australians report sometimes feeling shy. In particular, people report finding it difficult to meet new people out at social events, think of things to talk about, make friends their own age, talk about themselves and express themselves for fear of coming across as awkward. As a result, they will often avoid or shy away from these types of situations. This not only hinders them from forming or developing meaningful relationships but also enhances their feelings of anxiety in social settings, further reinforcing this avoidance behavior.

3. Social media.

Social media appears to have a bidirectional effect on loneliness. This means people who experience loneliness tend to spend more time on social media and also that people who spend more time on social media tend to be lonely. It is particularly noteworthy that many of us have become dependent on social media as our means of communication with others and may have lost the ability to form organic face-to-face connections with people in “real life.” Many of us may also lose the opportunity for social interaction due to technology. For example, when we are sitting in a waiting room, the first thing we will usually do is reach for our phone to fill the time, sacrificing opportunities for meeting new people.

4. The people we are around.

Loneliness does not mean being alone; we can be alone and feel totally content. and conversely, we may be surrounded by people and feel as lonely as ever. If we do not feel a sense of connectedness with our friends, family or others with whom we spend a vast amount of our time, we are likely to feel we lack deep and meaningful relationships, leading to feelings of misunderstanding and social isolation.

5. Mental health.

We have touched on social anxiety, however having a mental illness or poor mental health can also impact how lonely we feel. The association between depression and loneliness has been widely documented. However, research has shown more than half of people with severe mental illnesses are lonely or socially isolated. These people also often have an impaired ability to form and maintain relationships or lack opportunities to participate in social activities, often due to the stigma toward their mental illness within their communities.

Loneliness is an unfortunately common experience and one that may be detrimental to one’s physical and mental well-being. It is important to remember you are not alone in these feelings and to reach out for support when needed.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Originally published: May 17, 2019
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