Diving Into the Hidden Impact of Loneliness
This month’s blog focuses on loneliness and social isolation based on an interview with Anita Maina, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and therapist at The Women’s Center’s Washington, D.C. office.
Loneliness can affect anyone. While individual experiences with loneliness can vary, the effects can be profound and wide-ranging. Loneliness and social isolation are considered by many, including the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to be one of the most significant public health challenges in the U.S. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 U.S. adults aged 45 and older (and 17% of all adults, according to a similar Gallup study) experience significant feelings of loneliness. And even though the percentage of U.S. adults who report feeling lonely “a lot” on any given day has recently declined from its abnormal peak during the height of the pandemic, recent data confirms the pervasiveness of loneliness.
Although loneliness and social isolation have always existed, attempts to quantify loneliness trends for broad populations have been inconsistent until recent decades. However, most would agree that the number of people living alone who remain unmarried or get divorced is increasing. At the same time, involvement in communities such as clubs and social organizations seems to have decreased. All studies have noted that loneliness and isolation intensified during the recent pandemic years and still have not normalized. In our local Washington D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virginia areas, many people are also isolated due to the transient nature of the job market.
Ironically, technology and our modern era of online networks and connect-from-anywhere capabilities might contribute to feelings of loneliness. Anita Maina, a clinical social worker, and therapist at The Women’s Center, notes that many people she works with might have a strong social media and Internet life or may have friends from online video games and online networks – but advises that this is vastly different than having real-world, real-life interactions.
Health concerns from loneliness and social isolation
While loneliness is not always a serious mental health issue, it is often connected to broader issues, both as a symptom and a contributing factor. Prolonged loneliness and disconnection fundamentally affect both our mental and physical health. Loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Additionally, social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of physical ailments such as heart disease, stroke, and dementia. In tangible terms, The U.S. Surgeon General’s report states that significant loneliness, isolation, and a lack of social connection can increase the risk of premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Sometimes, loneliness is caused by changes in life circumstances. Those who find themselves isolated due to losing a partner, separation from family or friends, or new living or financial situations are at particular risk. While feelings of loneliness affect everyone, certain minority groups are disproportionately affected. Older adults are more likely to experience isolation.
Tips from a therapist
Whatever the circumstance, there are things you can do to mitigate feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Here are some tips from The Women’s Center:
- Take care of yourself – One of the common recommendations for positive mental health is to get outside for physical activities, eat healthy, and get enough sleep. People who are lonely or socially isolated may get too little exercise, drink too much alcohol, smoke, and often don’t sleep well, which can further increase the risk of serious health conditions.
- Pursue activities you enjoy – Anita Maina from the Women’s Center recommends a tool that has been passed down to her from other therapists as a best practice, called a “Natural Joy List.” This simply refers to keeping a list of things that bring you joy. Maintaining this list includes doing (and adding to) the activities on this list to help manage stress and stay as mentally and physically healthy as possible. Closely aligned to this is “being kind to yourself” (show yourself grace, and do not self-criticize).
- Engage in group activities and connect with others – Anita cautions that this is not always as easy as it sounds. Making friends and building human connections takes time and is not as simple as joining a local meetup group. For example, people are often challenged with initial discomfort, social awkwardness, or the process of progressing relationships from casual meetups to true friendships. But continuing to work at building friendships is important. Not every interaction will lead to a friendship – that’s to be expected.
When to seek help
Most people feel lonely at times, and everyone has different limits. If you find that loneliness is affecting your life significantly and if you find it hard to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression, professional support is available, including via your health care provider or organizations like The Women’s Center. You might also consider peer or group support.
If you or someone you know could benefit from mental health counseling at a reduced fee, reach out to us at (571) 385-1625 or visit this page. We also accept most insurances.