Loneliness occurs when people feel isolated, without purpose and lacking in connection with others. According to the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, “We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing.”
Humans are hardwired for connection. We need each other, not only to survive, but to thrive. Consider that in pre-historic times, people lived in collectives, tribes, and intentional communities in which each person’s presence was valued. Elders were cared for by younger members and children could look to multiple adults for guidance and protection. That is one dynamic which is lacking in the lives of many who would express that they are lonely. The American Psychological Association deems depression, “the most common mental health disorder,” and adds, “Depression is extreme sadness or despair that lasts more than days,” and hinders quality of life. It might present itself as eating too much or not enough, sleeping excessively, or experiencing insomnia. Other symptoms include a sense of despair and lack of motivation to provide good self-care, or thoughts that could lead to suicidality.
The term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one that is familiar to many. Those who experience it would likely say they feel more depression in early autumn when the days get shorter, the sun sets earlier and the temperatures drop. Why, then, would someone else experience those same symptoms when days lengthen, and the sun sets later? It seems counterintuitive, but there are possible reasons. An article entitled, “Seasonal Depression Can Happen in Spring — Here’s Why and How to Cope,” indicates that the warmer temperatures may be uncomfortable for those who don’t tolerate heat well, that circadian rhythms might be highjacked and more sunlight could disrupt the sleep cycle. When people are sleep deprived there is an increase in anxiety and depression. As well, when the spring comes and new life begins to blossom, depressed and lonely people can feel they should feel happy and excited about the nicer weather and about being outside with others, but they instead feel even more depressed, in part because they are not feeling excited about the better weather and being outside with others.
While there are effective interventions and strategies for treating depression, whether circumstantial or biochemical, tackling loneliness in the midst of low mood states presents its unique challenges.
As a human species, we are just coming out of an imposed quarantine, made necessary by COVID. We withdrew from close contact with family and friends in the same way and now we are emerging from winter hibernation. We could be uncertain of how to interact with others since we are out of practice. Remember that chosen solitude for brief periods of time is different from anxiety- or depression-driven isolation.
People feel lonely for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they have just ended a romantic relationship, a beloved animal companion died, they changed jobs, or moved from familiar surroundings. The 2008 release entitled Loneliness, Human Nature and the Need For Social Connection by John T Cacioppo and William Patrick offers readers insights into what causes loneliness and what might be done to prevent it. A recent episode of All Things Considered on National Public Radio (NPR), put us on notice that loneliness is an epidemic that needs to be addressed with care and attention if we want to thrive as a species. According to Dr. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, loneliness in the U.S. harms our individual and public health and therefore our society:
“Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”
So, what can we do to feel a deeper bond with people in our lives and make sure that others in our circles are not bereft of support?
· Check on neighbors and friends, particularly those who live alone or are elderly.
· If you are part of a faith community, attend services, either in person or online.
· If you have not aligned with a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, and are inclined to join, go online and research to get a sense if one or more that would be a good fit for you. If social anxiety is an issue, most houses of worship are offering online services.
· Volunteer your time and talents.
· Join a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) Collective. Some exchange organically grown food for a labor of love, planting, cultivating, and harvesting.
· Sign up to be a letter writer for Letters Against Isolation.
· Join a choir or band — music is said to reduce depression.
· Organize or join an existing walking group to stroll in your neighborhood or park.
· Gather friends together for a potluck.
· Co-create an artistic project.
· Reach out to people with whom you have lost contact.
· Participate in a community clean-up project.
· Join up with Citizen University and get involved to be more engaged with the world around you.
It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.
― John Joseph Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love
If you are experiencing chronic depression or a mental health crisis, seek professional support via your insurance carrier or a well vetted site such as Psychology Today. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please contact the 988 Suicide Crisis Lifeline.