“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that answer is community”
Living through a pandemic has not been my idea of fun.
In the early days of the virus, streets were empty, people were ordered to stay home, wear gloves or masks if they went out in public, and wash hands and hard surfaces every time you touched anything. One of the most alarming realities of the pandemic is how many people were forced to shelter alone.
I noticed several commercials encouraging people to provide supplies and food to the adults and elderly living alone who were unable to secure necessities for themselves. After those heartwarming commercials stopped airing, I wondered about the emotional well-being of those same individuals being forced to shelter alone for months on end.
Researchers say that loneliness is not just a product of being alone, but also a state of mind. R.S. Weis, a sociologist, identified six social needs that, if unmet, contribute to feelings of loneliness:
- social integration
- reassurance of worth
- sense of reliable alliance
- guidance in stressful situations
Weis affirms loneliness is a natural phenomenon, a (personal) feeling that may arise at certain moments in life and can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, or other socio-demographic characteristics. This means that you, your co-worker, church member, student, supervisor, friend, can all experience loneliness. It also means you can live in a house full of people and still experience this phenomenon.
People feel and experience loneliness for a variety of reasons, including:
- attending a new school/workplace
- working exclusively from home
- lack of meaningful relationships
I remember when we first moved to South Carolina, the transition was significantly challenging for me. My partner and our children all went to work and school while I stayed home all day. I experienced this deep feeling of discontent even when they were home with me. I missed my family, friends, community, and all the people I knew back home. I felt isolated without those closest to me and I struggled with self-doubt, hopelessness, and persistent sadness.
Looking back at those moments, one might say I was depressed, or struggling with transition. I don’t disagree. But what I felt most was a deep sense of loneliness. I didn’t have any meaningful connections in my new area and it was difficult for me to engage with people I didn’t know and didn’t trust.
While loneliness is not considered a mental health condition, it can contribute to a mental health illness and influence other health factors like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, and diabetes. Researchers have also linked loneliness to an increased risk of mortality in adolescent, adult, and elderly populations. In a nutshell, long term loneliness can have significant impact on both physical and emotional health.
Taking steps to alleviate the feelings of loneliness can be scary and intimidating. Something to keep in mind is that the steps don’t exclusively include “making friends.” People who are naturally outgoing can also experience persistent feelings of loneliness because the feelings aren’t exclusive to a certain type of person. Loneliness is often connected to ongoing negative beliefs about oneself, aka low self-esteem.
We are hard wired for social connectedness and loneliness can feel like physical pain. The physical suffering of pain grabs the attention and pushes us to look for relief. If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness that don’t go away; consider taking these common steps:
- Talk about it. Reach out to your primary care doctor, therapist, counselor, spiritual advisor, or someone you trust. You might be surprised to learn that people in your circle genuinely care about you
- Volunteering gives you a way to engage with others without the pressure/stress of trying to connect. Perhaps it’s best to allow the connection to happen organically and over time.
- Getting outside for some fresh air does the mind and the body good. If you are new to physical activity, seek approval from your physician before starting any new exercise regimen.
- Do something that you enjoy. Painting, coloring, bingo, playing cards, roller skating, gardening, riding horses, etc. All are activities that have the potential for mastery and enjoyment.
Dalina Rainey is a behavioral health consultant in Orangeburg. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Master of Social Work, and from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, with a Bachelor of Science in Human Services.