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Having friends doesn’t just help our mental health, they help our physical health, too. And thanks to social media, we can now stay connected to friends and family across the globe. Things like Facetime and chat features help us keep friends and family a part of our everyday lives in ways that a phone call might not.
But even with the ability to reach someone at a moment’s notice any time of day, many Americans – almost three-quarters – experience loneliness, some as often as once a week.
Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains that there is a natural ebb and flow in our lives when feelings of loneliness are higher.
“One study suggested that adults under 30 reported significantly higher levels of loneliness than other age groups,” she said. “And again around age 50 the feelings increase again. To not feel lonely, what we need may change as we age.”
Mirgain cautions that being alone is not the same as feeling lonely. Loneliness is the sense that we are lacking close connection with others. It can be a signal that something isn’t right in our lives – perhaps our energies are going too much in one direction, like work. If we pay attention to the feeling, it can motivate us to seek out connections with others and re-align our priorities. But when the feeling lasts a long time and leads us to withdraw from others, that’s where the problems can occur.
What many might not realize is that loneliness can actually hurt in a physical sense. Some studies suggest that some of the same areas in the brain are activated when experiencing social pain as when experiencing physical pain. And, it can really affect our health.
Mirgain says studies that have suggested ongoing feelings of loneliness or social isolation can lead to an increased risk of death, and adults with few social contacts were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
“Research has shown that across genders the effects of chronic loneliness are similar to the effects of obesity, substance abuse and smoking – and this is true across cultures,” she said.
The good news is that social connections can also help protect against the negative health effects of chronic stress. When we’re surrounded by people with whom we’re close and who offer us emotional support, it can help buffer against the effects of stress. But it’s important to remember that quality – not quantity – is what really matters.
“With social media we can have hundreds or even thousands of followers,” said Mirgain. “But, the kind of social connections that matter to our health are more intimate; they include an emotional connection and even a sense of trust and vulnerability.”
When feelings of loneliness do appear, Mirgain offers some tips for helping to turn the feelings into a positive experience.
Don’t shoot the second arrow
She explains that with loneliness, there are two arrows – the first is when we start to feel lonely, the second arrow is when we start to turn that feeling into a fact.
When loneliness strikes, we might start to blame ourselves and be self-critical. We may even start to feel that others are judging us. If we shoot that second arrow, we start to turn the feelings of loneliness inward and make it our reality. This can cause us to withdraw or become distrustful of others.
It’s important to remember that we don’t have to shoot the second arrow. When the first one strikes, watch it – but then remember it’s just a feeling and not a reflection of who we are.
Reach out and connect with someone
Like an old commercial said – when feelings of loneliness hit, reach out and connect with someone. Call up a friend or just get out among people, like at the library. Saying "Hello" to a stranger or asking the clerk how his or her day is going can help us connect with others; doing so helps keep us from withdrawing further into ourselves. And while it might seem like the opposite would be true, solitary activity can even help.
“We can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely because it’s really about connecting on an emotional level. Spending time in nature or with a pet, engaging in a spiritual practice, reading a favorite book or watching a TV show and feeling something in common with the characters can also help us connect with something outside of ourselves,” said Mirgain.
Be the sun in someone’s day
Feelings of loneliness can motivate us to take action. We can turn that into a way of not only doing something generous for someone else, but also getting clarity on our core values. Consider volunteering for a local organization, helping an elderly neighbor or finding a way to help with needs in the community. When we take action in the direction of our values, we can find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning because we are joining with something bigger than ourselves.
Generate your own warmth
Mirgain shares that when we’re comfortable in our own skin, it’s easier to move beyond feeling lonely and remember that things will get better. One way to move beyond feeling disconnected from others is through a brief meditation.
“Take a few moments to sit quietly with your eyes closed and bring to mind all the people who have been kind to you over your lifetime. It could be a stranger who paid for your coffee, a person who held the door when your hands were full, a loved one who gave you an unexpected gift," Mirgain said. "By remembering those large and small moments, it helps us remember we’re not traveling alone and feelings of loneliness are just momentary."
But remember, when feelings of loneliness become chronic, it’s important to seek out help from your physician.