Understanding The Epidemic of Loneliness

June 21, 2022

Almost everyone knows what it’s like to be lonely.

In fact, in 2018, more than half of the U.S. population reported feeling lonely, leading experts to say that we are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic.

When someone is lonely, we often assume that the person doesn’t have friends or social skills. But research has shown that the amount of time we spend with others and the quality of our social skills don’t make a difference.

What Is Loneliness?

Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, which occurs when we feel that our social connections don’t meet our social needs.

“It’s important to recognize that loneliness is a subjective state. It’s not about how many people you have around you; it’s about how you feel about the connections that you have in your life. Loneliness results when the connections we need are greater than our connections.”

— Vivek Murthy

People with loneliness often feel alone and although they want to connect with others they often find it difficult to do so.

The thing about loneliness is that you can’t tell who’s lonely and who is not. It can present itself differently in people and affect anyone regardless of age, gender, and social status.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Before the forced social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an epidemic of loneliness.

The term “The Loneliness Epidemic” can seem like a current crisis affecting us now, but it’s not. Loneliness has existed since the beginning of humanity.

Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA the 19th Surgeon General of the United States and author of the book “Together,” declared loneliness a public health crisis, and the cost of loneliness is high. It can compromise one’s physical health and well-being by increasing the risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In addition, chronic loneliness can also increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, dementia, and even premature death.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D. a psychologist at Brigham Young University, suggests that lacking social connections carries a similar risk as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily.

“The general public recognizes how loneliness might influence our levels of distress and our emotional or mental health, but we probably don’t recognize the robust evidence of the effects on our physical health.

— Dr. Holt-Lunstad

Why and When Did We Start Becoming Lonely?

Dr. Murthy has said that the “epidemic of loneliness” was driven by the accelerated pace of life and the spread of technology into our social interactions.

Millions of years ago, it was normal to live in communities. Being alone and without anyone around posed itself as a threat. Interestingly enough, in modern society, being alone and having access to privacy has become the new normal, with more people spending most of their time alone instead of those close-knit communities.

According to the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo, Ph.D. loneliness plays a vital role in the survival of our species. During hunter-gather times, humans relied on each other to survive. It meant safety, shelter, food, and the ability to procreate. Without a community, the pain of loneliness acted like a stimulus that alerted us by letting us know that our social bonds were at risk.

Being alone would trigger a physical response just like other needs in your body. When your social bonds were at risk, it meant you were in danger. It was like your body and brain were working together to keep you alive.

The Pain of Social Rejection

Several research studies have concluded that the pain of being socially rejected and physical pain activate the same part of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

When loneliness kicks in, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels go up, it can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation, and heart disease.

What Is It Like To Feel Lonely?

Being lonely is not the same as being alone. Loneliness is the feeling that you are alone. It’s the feeling disconnected from people while believing that everyone else is not.

According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, “People underestimate people’s loneliness because there is a stigma associated with loneliness…Loneliness, unfortunately, carries a stigma with it. People who feel lonely often are ashamed to admit it. They think it’s equivalent to admitting they are not likable or that they are socially insufficient in some way. “

Do You Feel Lonely?

Loneliness is a widespread issue that suggests people feel more alone than ever. Loneliness also tells us that it’s time to connect and reconnect with others and build and reestablish our social circles.

After all, as social beings, we weren’t always meant to be alone.