How the Chronic Loneliness Epidemic Is Affecting Us
The advent of smartphones and social media drove us into our phones, and then the coronavirus pandemic drove us into our homes. Research shows the millennial and Gen Z generations are the loneliest ever in the history of humankind, which is a reality severely exacerbated under the Covid19 lockdown. Most of us are experiencing the health effects of chronic loneliness — not a diagnosable condition, but both a cause and symptom of a mental health pandemic raging under lockdown.
Chronic loneliness is a long-term, continuous feeling of unwelcome isolation and feeling lonely, regardless of whether the person is physically alone or not. It’s the feeling of perceiving oneself as separate from others, unable to connect with people and surroundings on an emotional level, and feeling constantly alienated and deprived of human connection. Chronic loneliness is twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity and is associated with health risks similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or sporting an alcohol abuse disorder, according to a 2015 meta-analysis published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
“If reactive loneliness is painful, chronic loneliness is torturous,” clinical psychologist Ami Rokach tells the American Psychological Association. The root of chronic loneliness is dissatisfaction, with one’s family life or larger social circle, or with one’s work, and romantic or sexual life. Loneliness is rooted in our perception of social isolation and how connected we feel to others, Rokach says.
Chronic loneliness contributes to mental health issues such as depression, poor sleep patterns, decreased functioning throughout the day, weak immunity, and weak cardiovascular health, according to a 2015 study published in Biological Sciences. Social isolation, which is one of the causes of loneliness, is also a cause for early death, a 2019 study found.
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In turn, mental and physical health are also markers for loneliness in people. People with social support in their lives, and who have healthy bodies and minds are less likely to be lonely and are more likely to be able to handle and overcome feelings of loneliness than those who don’t have such systems in place, a 2017 study on aging adults shows.
As with any mental health problem, however, reaching out for help to get out of a slump is one of the hardest things to do. Lonely people, for example, were found to perceive their social circle more distantly because of their loneliness, which made it harder for them to reach out to their loved ones, according to a study The Swaddle has previously reported. This cycle can become chronic, eventually pushing lonely people into behaviours that are unhealthy, which in turn push them into chronic loneliness.
The way to start combating negative feelings associated with isolation, which can also include low self-esteem and self-loathing behaviours, is to start seeing loneliness as a feeling, and not as a state of being. Any interventions designed to help lonely people need to focus inward on where the feelings of loneliness are stemming from, rather than measures that aim to fix people’s surroundings.
In the next few years, we’re going to have to reckon with the severe mental health toll that this pandemic has taken on the global population. Even as we come out of lockdown and start engaging with others, it’s imperative we remember we might be able to fix aloneness, but fixing loneliness will be a longer fight.