The Epidemic of Loneliness and How to Cope

Are you feeling lonely, even when you’re not alone?  Well, you’re not alone when it comes to loneliness.  

Estimates suggest that between 25-60% of older adults experience loneliness, often peaking in 40s and 50s.  

In this week’s episode of Sex Marks the Spot, I’m going to be talking about the epidemic of loneliness.

Loneliness can lead to feeling worthless, isolated and helpless- all which impact mood, leading to depression and anxiety as well as poorer health associated with common unhealthy lifestyle choices that aim to soothe loneliness including over-eating, decreased activity/exercise, substance use, and further isolation from relationships. 

The former Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murphy identifies loneliness as an epidemic that faces many individuals but also impacts others.   Most of the research over the last few decades has highlighted how perceived loneliness is often associated with relationship/marital dissatisfaction.  Prior studies have reported that approximately a third of married individuals experience loneliness. Considering the increasing prevalence of divorce, loneliness continues to be a significant factor leading to separation.  Loneliness is prevalent and problematic.

 

How to combat loneliness:

Loneliness is a perception that each individual has control over.  Therefore- cognitive, behavioral and social strategies can help combat loneliness. However, it’s easier said then done.  Often times the perception and feeling of loneliness is linked with low mood and isolation- which can be challenging to change.  However, despite the challenge, there’s ample evidence proving strategies work to improve mood and loneliness. Here’s a few:

  1. Firstly, acknowledge that feeling lonely isn’t the same as being lonely.  Loneliness is a subjective feeling, meaning that it’s all about how you’re perceiving your reality.  We all may feel lonely at one time or another, but it’s how we react to this feeling that creates habits in our behaviors and patterns in our relationships.  In your relationship, it’s important to separate your feelings from your thoughts and behaviors. Once you’ve done this, then you can begin to control your thoughts and choose different ways to respond.

     

  2. Challenge the negative thoughts you have about yourself that keep you feeling lonely. “I’m worthless”, “nobody cares about me”, “I’m not good enough to love.”  These are all harsh, but fairly common, negative statements that get too much play time in our heads and maintain loneliness. Challenge these thoughts with evidence that contradicts these thoughts to neutralize and control them.   This sounds easier than it is and requires practice- regular practice. The negative self-talk in your head is a habit which now requires intentional practice to shift.

     

  3. Share your feelings with your partner, with a goal of shifting the way you two interact.  Loneliness often stems from a history of turmoil or tension in a relationship. You’ve probably tried talking to your partner before and it’s either ended in a fight or the discussion just dissolves.  Avoidance after conflict is a common reaction, which leads to isolation and loneliness. Try talking to your partner about YOUR feelings and what YOU would like to do different in the relationship to combat your loneliness and feel more connected.  By focusing on YOUR feelings, this will open up the conversation while soliciting support from your partner.

     

  4. Expand your social networks.  Again, easier said than done- when all you may want to do is hide in a hole.  But start off small and try joining a class ( a small intimate class) or try a new group activity where you can practice your social muscles and begin connecting to others again.  We’re all social beings and it can be hard, intimidating and daunting to forge new relationships (particularly the older we get). So, take it slow and start small. Online or in person- there’s so many ways to connect with others.  Remember quality is better than quantity – so while it’s great to meet new people, be selective of who you choose to befriend.

     

  5.  Focus on others to take the focus off yourself.  Giving, truly giving, to a loved one, friend, or stranger can be a powerful tool that lifts how you perceive yourself and how you feel.  So begin with small everyday acts of kindness in your everyday life- your generosity and kindness doesn’t have to be life changing as long as it’s authentic.

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