Loneliness is a natural emotion, and most people will feel lonely at some point in their life. However, if loneliness is a persistent and recurring feeling, it can affect a person’s physical and mental well-being.
Felicia Hansell, MD, a psychiatrist with M Physicians and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, shares her expert tips to turn these feelings around.
As humans and social creatures, our interactions with others are an important part of our development and identity. “When we are feeling isolated or don’t have access to relationships with others, it is very common to be triggered by the emotions of loneliness,” Dr. Hansell explains.
The risks of loneliness
Feeling lonely is an unpleasant experience and can cause unexpected mental and physical health impacts. From a mental health perspective, loneliness is a prevalent contributor to depression and a symptom of depression.
Loneliness is also a risk factor for serious physical outcomes, especially in older adults. Dr. Hansell says it is associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease and dementia.
“Learning about this helps us understand how to reduce the rate of loneliness by encouraging social connections,” adds Dr. Hansell.
Coping with loneliness
Dr. Hansell says the best way to deal with loneliness is to seek more social connections. This doesn’t have to be with a romantic partner. It doesn’t even have to be with a human. “We know that pets are associated with significant improvements in negative health outcomes and loneliness,” Dr. Hansell says.
She adds that petting an animal reduces your blood pressure and is a great way for people to stay connected with having a social relationship by having a duty to another being and adding responsibility and structure to your life.
“This is something that has been more on our minds since the pandemic. As America’s population ages, we’re learning more about the unique struggles that older adults go through,” she says, adding that “Staying socially connected is really important.”
We may not be as intentional about it when we’re younger because we’re always in social spaces. However, as we age, it becomes crucial to consciously make a decision to seek out friendships, community groups or even online spaces.
Furthermore, Dr. Hansell encourages seeking out psychotherapy to address the mental health impact of loneliness. “I think therapy is for everybody,” she says, “And taking medications if you have a psychiatric diagnosis.”
A commitment to ourselves and others
For those who are alone and are feeling isolated, Dr. Hansell recommends reflecting on individual hobbies and pursuits that will bring them joy. “Self-care sometimes conjures up images of taking a bath or getting your nails done, but self-care can be exercise, cooking, gardening in the summer, being outside and in nature.”
She recommends taking these moments when you’re alone as an opportunity to improve your relationship with yourself. “Some people naturally thrive when they’re alone, but for the rest of us, it does take more intention and soul-searching about what we value in life.”