I was reading through Facebook posts when I spied a post from a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while. I felt a tremendous urge to reach out and talk to them. I was experiencing loneliness. Loneliness may have been a growing healthcare concern before the pandemic, but since the pandemic, its become epidemic.
Daniel Perlman Ph.D. and Letitia Anne Peplau Ph.d., psychologists and authors on loneliness theory defined loneliness as, “Loneliness is the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relationships is deficient in some important way…“
What is Causing Loneliness Today?
Coming to the realization that you are lonely may not be easy to identify. Having family and friends around makes loneliness less obvious. Zig Ziglar, a famous American salesperson, and motivational speaker, said, “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it does exist.“
Today, there is a situational component to loneliness…social distancing. All those activities that allowed us to interact with others have been reduced or eliminated. Social distancing unintentionally became a training ground for social isolation and loneliness.
And loneliness can have repercussions. Nick Morgan, Ph.D. identified how loneliness can become a vicious circle, “The parts of the brain that respond to threats become more agitated. As a result, we may become more hostile to those around us, thus further pushing people away and making us lonelier still.“
Yet, social distancing isn’t the only contributor to social isolation and loneliness. Political polarization has reduced friendships and conversations. Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Endowed Professor of Radicalization, Extremism, and Conspiracy thinking at Maastricht University identified “anxious uncertainty” as a cause of political polarization. He goes on to identify “anxious uncertainty” as having roots in “anxiety about their economic future.” This can have the unintended consequence of pitting people against each other.
Sharing Purpose in Life
What can you do to change? Dr. Sheldon Cohen, professor at Carnegie Melon University, found positive social interactions reduce the impact of stress and can foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Make a goal to acknowledge people. Grocery clerks, customer service members, anyone you interact with, try noticing them. Asking the clerk how their day is going or have they been busy can open up an avenue for positive social interaction. Thanking the customer service person for their help can make their day more rewarding. Leaving a tip tells your waitstaff you know they are here and appreciate the time they give you. Try a different method of engaging with friends who are politically polarized.
Learning New Ways to Connect
The pandemic has spent almost two years recreating how people socialize. Although people long for in-person social interactions, the American Psychology Association “Stress in America” poll found, “…Nearly half of Americans (49%) said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends.”
People have turned to online social interactions. People use online communities in ways that go beyond the office zoom meeting or facebook post. Group interaction is expanding with new rules of engagement while allowing individuals to manage their social anxiety. “There’s a ‘safety element’ to showing up via video chat,” related one online user.
And these new rules of engagement are also changing how people communicate with each other. Michigan-based sexologist Megan Stubbs has observed. “I see more avenues of communication being open. People are talking more and getting more specific about their needs…Distance necessitates this. When you’re not in the same room… you can’t rely on body language and subtle cues.“
And the APA Stress poll found “the majority of those who have had online social interactions since the coronavirus pandemic started (84%) said these engagements have helped them cope with stress.“
Old-school is Still Useful
Today, technology has created avenues of communication and social interaction while the pandemic creates new communication methods. Yet, there is still the old-school method of a telephone call. Reaching out to old friends could help fill that part of your social network that is lacking right now. Friendships happened over time, sometimes years. Friendship author and speaker Shasta Nelson in her book, “Friendships don’t just happen,” recognizes, ” Our friendships did not just magically appear out of nowhere; they were birthed and fostered in a container of consistent time together.“
Friendships have a special bond of intimacy. Even though time may have changed you or them, friendships connect at a deep level. Friendships connect through your core identity. These are parts of your beliefs and attitudes that will always be a part of you.
So, I took that and reached out to my friend, who I hadn’t talked to in years, and we were able to hook up again. It was amazing. There has never been another friend like her. That’s the neat thing about friends. No two friends are the same.
Within fifteen minutes of our two-hour conversation, she had me laughing at the plight of being human while running out of toilet paper and recklessly challenging the status quo on bathing. That deep ability to laugh at the stupidest things was exactly what I was missing in my social network of a world too serious.
4 Ways to Improve Loneliness for You and Everyone Around You
|Acknowledge People||Overcome the Social Dilemma|
|Find ways to acknowledge people. People need to know their effort has value & they are seen. Something as simple as a “thank-you” can change a day.||Realize the social dilemma only has to be personal if you want it to be. This is overwhelming and you have the option to respond or let it go when someone you know becomes a disrupter.|
|Challenge Yourself||Participate in Old-School|
|Individuals are experiencing new ways of communicating through online forums. Challenge yourself to participate in chat or different online group social activities.||Reaching out and connecting with an old friend through your cell phone can be just the relationship you need for your mental health.|