Stand Together Network

How can you help a loved one suffering from loneliness?

Author: Stephanie Collier, MD, MPH, Contributor 

You are worried about your mother. Before the pandemic, you would visit her every week with your young children. They loved playing in her garden and eating homemade cookies together. You would take your mother to medical appointments and on small excursions. However, due to her chronic lung disease, you made the difficult decision in March not to continue in-person family visits. You call her daily, but she sounds increasingly sad and worried. What can you do? 

What is loneliness and how does it affect health?

Loneliness is a subjective mental state of feeling disconnected from others. It is different from social isolation — you can be lonely even when surrounded by people you care about. Loneliness can be triggered by memories of losing someone, by feeling misunderstood by others, through having emotionally unsatisfying relationships, or by having less access to relationships due to changing life circumstances. According to studies, loneliness is one of the greatest health concerns people face: it is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes daily, it appears to be worse for your health than obesity, and it may increase your risk of death by 29%. 

Loneliness and suicide

It does not seem surprising that reports of both loneliness and suicide have increased dramatically in recent years. According to a recent survey, more than three out of five Americans now consider themselves lonely. Data from the federal government show that the rates of suicide have increased more than one-third from 1999 through 2018. Although studies have not determined whether loneliness causes suicidality, they have demonstrated an association between loneliness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors that are independent of depression. Alarmingly, gun sales in the United States have skyrocketed since March 2020. With lockdowns and stay-at-home orders increasing social isolation, decreasing loneliness should be a public health priority. If unaddressed, loneliness may contribute to a firearms-related suicide crisis. 

Tips for conquering loneliness

So what can you do to prevent loneliness and help a loved one? Although we do not have enough data to identify the most effective loneliness interventions, the following principles may help guide you and your loved ones and should be used daily: 

  • Connect meaningfully with family and friends: Although technology can help foster connections, it is imperfect: social media, for example, has actually been linked to increasing loneliness. Connect in a way that works best for you: whether by phone, via video chat, through a mobile application, or even by talking with your neighbors across the fence or in a park. 
  • Be thankful: Loneliness can lead people to focus on themselves and their hardships. Aim to express appreciation toward friends, family, and strangers. 
  • Focus on what you can change: Spending time dwelling on your current situation can perpetuate loneliness; rather, focus your attention on something within your control and work at it. 
  • Enjoy being busy: Complete a chore, spend time writing, find a new hobby, or just allow yourself to delve into a new activity. Let your creativity shine! 
  • Remove negativity: Surround yourself with people and activities that bring you joy. Consider taking a break from the news, or at least limiting your consumption. Data suggest that just the act of smiling can make you feel better. 
  • Be kind, understanding, and patient: Work on treating yourself and others with compassion. Engaging in pleasurable interactions can also help those around you, and may result in deeper connections. 
    Develop a routine that provides balance and familiarity: Create a daily plan that includes physical activity, time for connecting with loved ones, a project or hobby, and a relaxing pleasure. 

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