Authored by: Erin Risius, MA, LPC – Director of Behavioral Health at Hilton Head Health
We are hard-wired for human connection. Even the most introverted among us need to feel seen, felt, heard, and accepted by another. Social interactions and close relationships are, in fact, vital components of optimal health and longevity. So much so, that if lacking these factors ranks #1 and #2 on a list of top ten contributors to early mortality, outranking smoking, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. When the fundamental need for social connection is missing, we suffer emotionally and physically.
I don’t know about you, but this research certainly got my attention.
With the current mandate to physically distance ourselves from each other, a spotlight has been directed at our social connections like never before. This attention to our social health and wellbeing is a good thing. Even before the pandemic, chronic loneliness was quickly becoming recognized as a public health issue in the United States. In the 1980s, 20% of Americans self-reported chronic loneliness, and in 2016 that statistic jumped to an alarming 47%, which is more than double¹. Loneliness is prevalent among people of all ages and backgrounds and is increasing worldwide. In 2011, the United Kingdom began an aggressive national Campaign to End Loneliness and in 2018 designated its first Minister of Loneliness to help bring awareness and solutions to this pervasive, but often stigmatized issue.
As a counselor, I observe loneliness to be one of the primary contributors to depression, anxiety, addictions, and feelings of shame. People aren’t openly talking about their experience of loneliness to their friends and family, they are instead suffering in secret, believing there is something inherently wrong with them. For some people, in order to get relief from these feelings, they turn to substances, such as food, alcohol, or drugs. I worked with a woman who shared a thought that could be a mantra for many people I counsel, which is: “I’d rather be with food at night than be alone.” Food beckoned her in the quiet evening of nighttime and became the reliable companion that she felt was missing in her life. When left unaddressed, loneliness can influence many aspects of how we choose to take care of ourselves in the quiet moments.
Now the good news. This unfortunate pandemic has shined a much-needed spotlight on the topic of loneliness. People are sharing with me that they now feel less isolated and shameful about their loneliness because it’s much more talked about in the news, and among their family and friends. Instead of loneliness being stigmatized, we are ironically more united within this collective experience of physical distancing. As a result, some people feel less shameful and alone – within their loneliness.
One of the important components of self-compassion is feeling like we aren’t alone in having a particular concern. Hearing others talk about their loneliness provides unspoken permission to give voice to our own experience. And now, because of the isolating effects of physical distancing, the experience of loneliness is being given a voice like never before. Better late than never.
Because of this spotlight, people are increasingly going out of their way to connect with one another. Admittedly, I’m making more eye contact with strangers and saying hello and smiling, and I’m receiving the same in kind. There is more of a collective effort to ‘see’ and connect with one another. The dramatic rise of Zoom, Skype, and other online resources for staying virtually connected has provided a much-needed safety net these days. In addition, people are reaching out to that family member or friend they haven’t spoken to in months, possibly years, and lost connections are being resurrected. Maybe the silver lining in all this, is that we are finally realizing just how important we are to each other.
When we feel like we matter, are important to others, and that we are on someone’s radar, we feel less alone. And, it’s the quality of our social connections that matters more than the quantity. Having someone to talk to uncensored while feeling seen and heard is powerful for alleviating feelings of loneliness. This person could be a best friend, your partner, or your mother. Whether you have one or several people you can call upon when needed, count yourself lucky. If you have no one in your personal life you can talk to right now, I strongly urge you to reach out for professional support. Whether it is a counselor, spiritual advisor, life coach, etc. we have chosen these professions because we genuinely care and are interested in being of support to the seeker. Talking with someone can go a long way in feeling less alone in it all.
“There is no such thing as a gratuitous act.” – Mr. Underwood (my high school writing teacher)
I remember one of my favorite teachers sharing this philosophical statement in class. His meaning behind the statement was that when we give to others, we are in essence receiving something in return. When we feel like our contribution matters to someone else or to another cause, this sense of purpose helps us to feel less alone, and part of something that is bigger than ourselves. Volunteering for a worthwhile cause can be a win-win situation for taking the edge off of loneliness while helping others in need. Instead of wondering if each day will be a ‘good day’, instead ask yourself ‘what good can I DO today?” This change of mindset could make all the difference as we navigate this uncertain time.
I want to close with a quote by one of my favorite authors and teachers, Pema Chodron:
“Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”
–From When Things Fall Apart
We are all impacted by a level of uncertainty and change as we navigate a ‘new norm’ of physical distancing. Some of us are nudged to be more creative and persistent with staying connected to the ones we love. Others are bravely breaking out of their isolative cocoons to create connections and support where none may have existed before. Whatever the situation, when we can courageously reach out to someone in the vein of support, friendship, and genuine care, an unseen burden is lifted. Make a commitment to reach out to one person this week.
Erin Risius, MA, LPC
Director of Behavioral Health
1. MDLinx (January 2019). https://www.mdlinx.com/internal-medicine/article/3272