Loneliness is such a painful experience that people will do practically anything to avoid it.
Still, many lonely people suffer in silence because the issue is stigmatizing, caused by a fear of being unneeded or appearing weak, vulnerable, or incompetent.
Social participation is the hallmark of human society. As humans, we are not meant to live isolated. Our individual lives depend on each other, intertwined through social relationships.
With the Covid-19 outbreak, when global lockdowns went into place in early 2020, most of us were newly introduced to the idea of solitary existence. This was forced solitude or forced isolation.
Since then, as studies show, loneliness has significantly increased across the globe.
A February 2021 report suggests that 36% of all Americans (including 61% of young adults) feel “serious loneliness.” Data collected between March and April 2020 indicate that one in two Australians reported feeling lonelier since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Problems of A Long Forced Solitude
A key fact is that loneliness is not equivalent to social isolation, but they are interrelated.
Loneliness is the personal experience of being dissatisfied with one’s social relationships (Shevlin et al., 2014). Social isolation is when you are removed from other people, living alone, mostly out of force rather than choice.
You may feel lonely in a crowd if you are unhappy, irritated, or silly-bored with the quality of your relationships with the people around you. You may also feel completely content being alone when you have chosen to be alone.
They are related in the sense that long periods of forced solitude can create feelings of loneliness.
- Studies show loneliness has a negative connection with prosocial behavior. It means lonely people tend to avoid interacting with others, sharing personal resources, volunteering their time, effort, and expertise, and cooperating with others to achieve common goals.
- Loneliness is a risk factor for decreased resistance to infection, cognitive decline, and mental health conditions such as depression and dementia.
- Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of breast and colorectal cancer in individuals who report it.
- Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of breast and colorectal cancer in individuals who report it (Deckx L, et al., 2014).
- Loneliness is associated with a 26% increased risk of premature death. Living alone or being socially isolated is associated with a similar increased risk of early death (Holt-Lunstad J, et al. 2020).
- Loneliness in youngsters can have a negative effect on their college attendance and participation, study performance, and overall academic experience.
- Research has shown that loneliness has a negative impact on a person’s social functioning (Twenge et al., 2007; Woodhouse et al., 2012).
According to Vanhalst et al. (2015), there are two opposing viewpoints on how people react when their basic needs to belong are not fulfilled:
1. Loneliness-perpetuation perspective
It means we engage in some activities hoping to reduce our loneliness. They, on the other hand, worsen our loneliness.
It holds that loneliness makes us less sensitive to the potential benefits of situations that may satisfy the urge to belong.
2. Loneliness-reduction perspective
It means we do activities to reduce our loneliness that actually make us feel less lonely.
It holds that a frustrated desire to belong motivates people to actively seek ways to minimize need frustration and improve need satisfaction. There are various studies that support the loneliness-reduction viewpoint.
For example, a greater sense of loneliness is associated with a stronger communal orientation and less shyness. Moreover, lonely individuals even tend to exhibit physical warmth-seeking behavior.
During the lockdowns, most of us remained isolated at home, losing physical touch with almost everyone. This forced isolation also made us live with some of our closest people, creating a new form of loneliness—being “lonely together.”
However, we are possibly about to return to our old lives of sharing spaces and lives. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated that if 70 percent of the world gets vaccinated, the pandemic’s acute phase could end this year, 2022.
Escaping Loneliness After A Forced Long Solitude
Human beings are social creatures. Like hunger and thirst, loneliness is a signal that alerts us to something that is crucial to our survival. The threat and pain of loneliness prompt us to renew our connections.
People who experience loneliness fear how they will be judged by their community.
A bigger source of stigma about loneliness comes from how lonely people judge themselves. People who self-stigmatize loneliness may suffer from low self-esteem and try to hide their loneliness, which blocks out social reconnection.
Thus, loneliness can create a self-fulfilling prophecy by stealing away the joy we might otherwise get from trying new things and interacting with others.
If you have got into the habit of spending most of your time alone, how can you get out of this mood-lowering spiral? What can you do if you spend most of your time alone, and feel it is a chore to try out things you haven’t done in a long time?
1. Decide To Break Out of Your Forced Isolation
Try these. First, steel your resolve and decide to break out of the rut of isolation. It might seem scary, but the way out is taking the first step out of your comfort zone.
As Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, says:
In everything that we do, fear and criticism will always be there to greet us. Fear is the great restrictive force, as it stops most people from ever stepping more than one foot outside their comfort zone towards realizing their true desires.
Because fear and criticism will always be there in some form, the best course of action is always to show up anyway and move forward. No matter what you’re doing, show up every day to do what you were meant to do and don’t let these hindrances stop you.
2. Take Yourself For A Lunch Outside
You may have stayed locked in for a long period of time, forced by perhaps a personal disability, a mental health issue, or by an unexpected event like a global pandemic. When it’s time to take yourself out to sit down among strangers, the thought itself is uncomfortable.
The easy way to do it for the first is to think of having lunch, a daytime meal.
Another helpful tip is to choose a relatively less crowded place that is a little outside your neighborhood. It may help you avoid people you know so that none of you feel obligated to make small-talk with your anxious self.
While focusing on your food, try to observe people without being too obvious.
On your second or third visit, or whenever you feel comfortable, try to strike up a little conversation with one person. Even a few sentences with the staff, or a smile or a nod with another eater at the restaurant, would suffice.
2. Take Yourself To A Place of Fun
The first thing that comes to mind when talking of going to a place of fun is the fear of a crowd and their unpredictable nature. They may not be wearing masks, shouting and sneezing in the open, rubbing by other people’s bodies.
To avoid that, find an odd time, like mid-afternoon, to go to your community park or walk around your city streets. A simple 15-minute walk or jog followed by a 10-minute sitting meditation can take off the stress and make you feel lighter.
Later on, when you are ready, consider joining a gym or a physical activity class, to give yourself an opportunity to connect with others.
Explore your long-forgotten passions to find a joyful activity, such as a trip to a museum, an art gallery, or a planetarium. (A honest confession: those places do lift my spirits).
Alternatively, pick up a new interest, like weekend rock-climbing, boating, or parasailing, that can make you feel good.
3. Take Yourself Out To Help Others
Many people want to help others out of a pure altruistic motivation, without looking for any internal or external reward for giving or helping people. However, this inclination decreases after people experience loneliness as a result of prolonged isolation.
Take up a volunteering initiative that will let you mingle with other people, like a weekend charity project, to feed the homeless. Make some plans with your old or new friends.
4. Practice Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. In mindfulness meditation, you learn to focus on your surroundings or any activity you are doing in the present, like breathing, or repeating a phrase, to help keep your mind from wandering.
Loneliness has another sneaky effect: it makes us feel socially anxious. Being lonely erodes our confidence and makes it quite hard to reach out to other people.
If you catch yourself doing this, try to resist the urge to avoid other people.
Mindfulness meditation, when practiced regularly, can bring down your social anxiety levels resulting from prolonged isolation. It can help you pull in from your inner store of courage and fight the impulse to withdraw from peopled places or social situations.
5. Meet & Reconnect With People
Loneliness is lethal. But having meaningful social connections protects us from dying early.
Poor social interactions, defined as both loneliness and social isolation, are linked to a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke (Valtorta NK, et al. 2016).
Loneliness has also been linked to an increase in suicidality and parasuicide. Those who have experienced severe loneliness are 17 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months (Stickley A, et al. 2016).
According to the British Red Cross, before the Covid-19, one in every five persons said they were frequently or always lonely. But now, 41% of UK adults say they’ve felt more lonely since the lockdown.
Life after a pandemic lockdown looks so much stranger than what it used to look before. Social distancing and forced isolation will be completed done away with, but the habit of isolation is something hard to get out of.
So, loneliness will remain. Moreover, the loneliest among us feel they are the least capable of coping and recovering from the loneliness caused by pandemic-induced isolation.
There is no one-size-fits-all model to solve loneliness caused by forced social isolation. We must tailor our strategies to the needs of individuals, specific groups, or the degree of loneliness experienced.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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