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Why Social Isolation and Loneliness Are Growing Problems

Today's Medicine

Published: March 11, 2020

 

In a world that’s more connected than ever, Americans are lonelier than ever. According to Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index measuring loneliness and social isolation, 61% of Americans reported that they sometimes or always feel lonely – up 7 percentage points from last year. The numbers were even higher in younger people – 79% of Generation Z and 71% of millennials reported loneliness. Despite differences between loneliness and social isolation, both can have devastating effects on your mental and physical health. But why are they on the rise in our hyperconnected world? 

 

Social isolation versus loneliness 

Social isolation happens when someone sees a tremendous decrease in the amount of contact they have with society. It could be caused by depression, anxiety, physical illness, changes with work or family, a move, or even just personal preference.  

Social isolation is distinct from loneliness. Loneliness is like an emotion – it’s subjective and self-described. A person could be in a crowded room and feel lonely; however, they’re not isolated from society because they’re surrounded by people. 

 

An isolated world

Technology is a frequent scapegoat for society’s ills, but it’s safe to say that technology has made it easier to avoid social and public settings and become isolated. With technology, we can text, avoid phone calls, work from home and order any food you can imagine. Technology creates convenience, and convenience takes away a person’s need to venture out into the world and interact with people face-to-face. 

There’s a growing trendiness to being anxious – generalizing of the word “anxiety” to explain feeling stressed, nervous or socially awkward. More people opt to hide themselves away, and technology makes it easy. But as time goes on, a person can become more isolated and prone to continue staying at home because it’s comfortable. This can lead to feelings of depression and a lack of motivation since the person is engaging in fewer outside activities. As the trend continues, a person might choose comfort over company, essentially creating their own isolation. 

Social media can also cause loneliness. Scrolling though Instagram or Facebook, you might experience FOMO – fear of missing out – that can lead you down a rabbit hole of irrational thoughts about your likeability and social standing. If you feel that people don’t care enough to invite you places, you might give up trying to initiate plans because it seems pointless. In psychological terms, this is an example of learned helplessness. In this way, loneliness – whether it’s perceived or not – can lead to social isolation as a person begins to drift out of their social groups. 

 

Work and loneliness 

According the previously mentioned Cigna Loneliness Index, feelings of loneliness are also very much affected by work. Those who work less than they’d like feel lonelier, as do those who work more than they’d like. Those who don’t get along with coworkers or are new to their workplaces also feel lonelier. And unsurprisingly, people who frequently work from home reported more loneliness. 

Work is a hard environment to control, but there are ways to combat loneliness. Since so much of our time is spent at work, try some of the below strategies if you’re feeling lonely or isolated:

  • Make plans with friends in advance so you have social events to look forward to
  • Check in with yourself once you’re home. How do you feel? What were the highlights of your day? 
  • Make a personal goal to say hello to one person each time you work
  • Set aside small amounts of time to call or text someone just to check in
  • Take an occasional stroll around the office
  • Sit in groups during your lunch break, and challenge yourself to edge into a conversation
  • If socializing with people at work still feels uncomfortable, keep a journal handy and write out your feelings

 

Reach out

You can help prevent or combat loneliness by revaluating and bolstering your support system. Take an honest assessment of who is truly there for you. For example, teens are sometimes quick to dismiss their parents as support, but after looking closer, they may see all the great things a parent does to maintain their livelihood. You have to be realistic when it comes to mapping your support systems. No one can be there for you 100% of the time, and that’s OK. Base your opinions of these people on the facts – not assumptions or emotions. 

If social isolation or loneliness become problems in your life, counseling can help. Of course, a person who feels socially isolated or incredibly lonely may have a hard time reaching out for help. They may lack confidence or can’t think as clearly. Keep an eye on your loved ones, and check in with a friend you haven’t heard from in a while. We can all help each other be a little less lonely. 

 

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Molly Hefner

About the Author:

Molly Hefner, MS, PLMHP, NCC, is a counselor with Best Care EAP. She has extensive experience in suicide prevention and especially enjoys working with teenagers and young adults. 

See More Articles by Molly Hefner