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Loneliness Is The Silent Epidemic Of Our Times

Ease your way out of loneliness one step at a time.

What you need to know
  • Being lonely has significant negative effects on a person’s health
  • Loneliness carries a stigma, yet most people feel lonely at times
  • Feeling lonely has little to do with how many friends you have

We all have times when we'd rather be alone -- either for situational reasons, or simply because we choose to be. But then there are those who have a tendency to feel lonely on the best of days.

Being alone and feeling lonely aren't the same thing. Unlike alone time, which can be seen as a positive, pleasurable and emotionally refreshing experience, loneliness is the feeling of being cut off, disconnected, or alienated.

What's worse, new research reveals that loneliness can have serious negative effects on your health -- this can be made worse during the colder months when we tend to want to make like a bear and avoid all contact with the outside world.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, the effects of loneliness may even pose a greater threat to our health than other lifestyle risks, such as alcoholism and obesity. Adding fuel to fire, other studies liken the effects of loneliness to that of smoking.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need -- crucial to both well-being and survival," Professor Holt-Lunstad said in a statement.

A national survey conducted by Lifeline also revealed that approximately 60 percent of respondents said they "often felt lonely" and more than 80 percent said they felt loneliness was an increasing problem in society.

Image: Getty.

Speaking to The Guardian, ex- Lifeline CEO Pete Shmigel said loneliness and isolation is a real concern in Australia because it's linked to higher rates of suicidal ideation.

“Loneliness wears down your resilience to crisis. Say you lost your job, or you lost your boyfriend … when you are lonely, or feel that you have no one to confide in, your resilience drops. As resilience drops, risk of suicide increases,” he said.

Along with Mr. Shmigel, Professor Holt-Lunstad thinks social isolation has become a big enough health concern that it should be considered a "loneliness epidemic".

"The challenge we face now is what can be done about it,” she said.

Well, as it tuns out, there's a lot we can do to escape the grips of loneliness. It starts with changing your mindset -- and then developing an action plan.

John Cacioppo, a prominent psychologist who helped pioneer the field of social psychology, wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today that changing your mindset not only helps to combat the effects of loneliness, but it can also nip it in the bud before it even becomes a problem.

In his own words, Cacioppo wrote that it's possible to fend off the effects of chronic loneliness and social isolation by following four simple steps with the acronym EASE.

Let's take a look at these four steps.

Image: Getty.
Extend yourself

Cacioppo said it's important to regularly engage in everyday activities that provide "small doses of positive sensations that come from positive social interactions". In other words, get out and mingle more, people. He added that this is something you can't get while being socially isolated.

But to make the most out of this advice, Cacioppo said it's best to start with simple activities, such as catching up with friends or putting your hand up to help with a kids' sports team.

Action plan

As Cacioppo explained, understanding that you have the capacity and ability to take action can really help you to take steps towards overcoming and eliminating the effects of loneliness.

"The simple realisations that we are not passive victims, that we do have some control, and that we can change our situation by changing our thoughts, expectations, and behaviors toward others can have a surprisingly empowering effect, especially on our conscious effort to self-regulate," he wrote.

Selection

While getting out in social settings can make a big difference to easing the effects of loneliness, Cacioppo said you're more likely to keep it up if you choose activities that you want to be part of.

"Trying out for the community theater production could be awkward unless you really have acting or singing talent, but the theater group might welcome you with open arms if you volunteered to help backstage or in the ticket office," he wrote.

He added that social connection isn't about setting unattainable goals. 

Expect the best

Remember positivity always trumps negativity in any scenario. So when entering into any social interaction, exercise a little patience and be sure to shrug off negative feelings, such as expecting to be ignored or thinking that people won't be friendly.

"Social contentment can help us to be more consistent, generous, and resilient. It can make us more optimistic, and that 'expect the best' attitude helps us project the best," Cacioppo wrote.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Feature image: Getty.