Loneliness is a pressing issue affecting tens of millions of people throughout the world. COVID-19 has compounded the problem by forcing isolation and reduced in-person contact for months on end. Even before the pandemic, governments, mental health experts and everyday people recognized it as a widespread issue. Britain implemented a “minister for loneliness” in 2018 and a recent national survey shows that loneliness is also at epidemic levels in the U.S. Of the 20,000 U.S. adults surveyed, more than half report they either sometimes or always feel alone.

Humans are a social species. Clinical studies demonstrate that prolonged loneliness is detrimental to mental and physical health and can even lead to depression, anxiety, substance use, poor sleep, decreased physical activity, impaired cardiovascular functioning and an overall shortened lifespan.

Sabine Schmid, PhD, LP, M Physicians psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, gives advice on how people can recognize and prepare for social isolation and loneliness caused by the pandemic or other factors.

Social connectedness, a basic human need, is essential for coping with stress and overall well-being. While feeling lonely is simply a signal telling us to connect with others, prolonged loneliness is defined as a distressing experience due to not getting our social needs met for an extended period of time.

Dr. Schmid

Loneliness can be caused by a variety of different factors, but the pandemic has been a particularly challenging time. Crucial public health restrictions for social contact are compounding loneliness for many. In addition, because Dr. Schmid says the problem is stigmatized, many struggle to admit, even to themselves, that they feel lonely. 

“While loneliness may be caused by the loss of a meaningful relationship — like the death of a loved one, children leaving home, or job loss — and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the beliefs and behaviors associated with loneliness that keep those affected stuck,” Dr. Schmid said. These beliefs can extend any ongoing avoidance of social contacts, which subsequently confirms them in a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, people must begin to recognize and understand their unique needs and desires, or whatever else is getting in the way. 

“Behaviors related to social isolation include excessive rumination about the past, worrying about the future and, maybe most importantly, avoidance of anything that might trigger thoughts or feelings about being lonely. Avoidance of distress is generally adaptive. However, lonely people ironically tend to avoid social activities, even with friends, which could actually help with loneliness and disconfirm their helplessness and hopelessness,” Dr. Schmid said. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach and it is crucial to remember what is in your control. The pandemic, past experiences, negative news coverage or others’ actions might impact you, but they are mostly out of your control. Lonely people tend to dwell on situations that they can’t change themselves, making it imperative to focus on your own actions.

Dr. Schmid offers seven tips to turn your loneliness into action:

  1. Express your connection in actions. Engage in activities like cooking a dish for others to pick up or making a craft that symbolizes your friendship.
  2. Send something in place of yourself — a message, a greeting card, a little present, or a photograph.
  3. Virtually celebrate holidays wherever your loved ones may be by joining via a video conferencing program.
  4. Spread kindness. Leave a painted rock on your neighbor’s door, write a message in chalk on your sidewalk, place an uplifting sign or object in your window, volunteer to bring groceries to vulnerable neighbors.
  5. Connect to others in a similar situation as you. This could be a neighbor or friend who is also staying home away from their family this holiday season.
  6. Buddy up” with distant friends or family and establish activity goals such as physical exercise, reading a book, or learning a new skill.
  7. Exercise gratitude. Find one thing you are grateful for every day.

This year, we may spend the holidays in a new way. We can do so while accepting this reality, staying flexible in this ever-changing world, and taking an angle of gratitude and compassion for each other.

Dr. Schmid