The Loneliness Pandemic

How Feeling Alone Affects Physical and Mental Health

Girl sitting on the beach alone

For decades, the number of people in America and across the globe experiencing loneliness has skyrocketed. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic having brought more attention to the topic than ever, more and more people, communities, and countries at large are recognizing just how deeply loneliness is impacting our mental and physical health. 

According to a Harvard University survey completed by 950 Americans in October of 2020, 36% of all Americans reported feeling “serious loneliness” in the 4 weeks prior to completing the survey. 

This may come as no surprise since social isolation, physical separation, and the loss of loved ones are some of the hallmarks of Covid-19. But, in reality, this widespread experience of loneliness was cultivated long before the pandemic.

In fact, the United Kingdom had even appointed a Minister of Loneliness back in 2018 (Japan followed suit in 2021) in an effort to acknowledge and combat this public health crisis that was devastating the lives of many. Germany and other leading countries have also considered appointing their own Minister of Loneliness.

So if the COVID pandemic isn’t solely responsible for the worldwide loneliness pandemic, what is? 

What is Loneliness?

If we want to know why so many people are experiencing loneliness, we must first understand what loneliness actually is and how it feels. 

For many people, when they hear the word loneliness their mind jumps to circumstances such as someone losing a loved one, going through a divorce, or moving to a city where they don’t know anyone. Their mind goes to circumstances of physical separation. 

The main reason we associate Covid-19 with loneliness is because of the physical separation and the social isolation it created between us and the people in our lives. 

And while isolation does play a significant role in loneliness, the concept is much more dynamic that that singular factor. Although many have tried, loneliness is hard to define because it is a subjective experience. 

Harvard University’s report on Loneliness in America describes the complexity of the issue by saying that it’s “one thing to feel empty or unfulfilled in one’s friendships or family relationships, for example,” but it’s another “to feel unwanted by others, which is different from painfully missing contact with loved ones or close friends.” 

They go further to describe other types of loneliness, such as feeling unseen, unheard, or irrelevant to others, or a loneliness that feels more existential – like a “deep sense of aloneness in space and time.” 

This isn’t a comprehensive list of what loneliness is by any means, but it goes to show that loneliness means different things to different people. 

Add on top of that shifting societal norms, rapidly changing technology and social media, and our individual life changes and circumstances, and there are essentially countless ways to understand the experience of loneliness and what might trigger it. 

Loneliness in Young Adults

For some, especially young adults, social media plays a large role in feelings of loneliness as well as feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and disconnection that often so closely accompany it. Young adults are also particularly vulnerable to these feelings because they are navigating a time in their life filled with transitions and difficult, life-changing, decisions. 

In fact, Harvard’s national loneliness survey found that 61% of young adults feel lonely frequently, most of the time, or all of the time. 

How Covid-19 Has Led to an Increase in Loneliness

Covid-19 has only made matters worse, especially for the elderly, immunocompromised, and other populations that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the virus. 

Orange County Health Psychologist founder, Dr. Kristin Kleppe, shared that although the loneliness pandemic existed long before Covid-19, she’s noticing that people who are more risk adverse about COVID exposure are isolating far more than others and suffering emotionally as a result. Kleppe said “People have a lot of anxiety about being around people and getting sick, and they don’t think it’s worth the risk to leave the house, go out to dinner with friends, or engage in activities that give life meaning and joy. As each month has passed, I’ve seen their depression and anxiety increase and their quality of life decrease. 

Of course, it makes sense that people want to protect themselves and their health and feel hesitant to get back out into the world after 2 ½ years of being told to isolate and distance from others. But what’s essentially happening is that we are reducing the risk of one problem while drastically increasing the risk of other physical and mental health factors. 

How Loneliness Affects Physical and Mental Health 

Research shows that loneliness can have an array of detrimental effects on both your mental and physical health. That’s in part due to the fact that experiencing loneliness can greatly increase stress, which in turn increases inflammation in both the brain and the body. Because inflammation is linked to every major chronic disease or illness, this means that experiencing loneliness directly increases our risk for diseases and illnesses like depression, dementia, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, a weakened immune system, and more. 

By understanding that loneliness is so much more than a single state of feeling, or a temporary emotion, and that it has very real, life-threatening implications, it makes sense why countries have created a Minister of Loneliness and begun addressing this public health crisis at the individual, societal, and even governmental level.

How to Combat Feelings of Loneliness

If you or a loved one has been feeling lonely, creating sources of connection can be key to reducing suffering and restoring a sense of community and closeness. Working with a therapist can be a great way to understand what’s triggering these feelings of loneliness and to begin taking steps to combat them by exploring opportunities for social support.  

Dr. Kleppe shares that when working with patients who are more isolated, she often uses a scale that’s been used in research on loneliness worldwide called the UCLA 3 Item Loneliness Scale. This is a simple, 3-part questionnaire in which she asks patients the following:

1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?

2. How often do you feel left out?

3. How often do you feel isolated from others?

This verbal survey often opens up conversation and leads to discussion in which she and patients can identify triggers, brainstorm ways to increase support and connection, and come up with actionable steps to engage in new opportunities. 

For patients who are struggling to get back to social interactions following the pandemic, Dr. Kleppe works with them to weigh the costs and benefits of being risk tolerant or risk adverse to Covid-19 exposure, as opposed to being risk tolerant or risk adverse in exposure to loneliness. Once patients are able to see how continuing to isolate themselves, especially for those that have been vaccinated and boosted, might actually be doing more harm than good because of the loneliness it causes and the direct impact that has on their mental and physical health. 

Therapy in Orange County

If feelings of loneliness are keeping you from the life you desire, please reach out for additional support from one of our licensed mental health providers. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Orange County Health Psychologists by calling 949.528.6300 or emailing info@OCHealthPsych.com.

-Written by Cassie Cipolla for Orange County Health Psychologists