If you’ve been feeling a little lonely lately, you’re not, well, alone. Even before the whole 2020 social isolation thing started, there was good data that “anywhere from 22% to 75% of American adults are persistently lonely,” as more Americans live alone than ever before. Some report rates of feeling lonely doubling over the past 50 years, despite the ability to connect online at almost any time. Loneliness has become, as Vivek H. Murthy, who became U.S. surgeon general in late 2014 termed it, “an epidemic.” In 2018 the British government was so concerned that it created a “Minister for Loneliness.” And now another epidemic has further exasperated those high numbers, making us all familiar, at least at one time or another, with the pangs of loneliness.
Loneliness doesn’t only make you feel bad – it’s also bad for you. Some compare the number of risks it poses as being similar to those posed by obesity. Loneliness raises the likelihood of developing disorders such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, cognitive decline, and metastatic cancer. It also weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections., particularly bad during a pandemic. Loneliness can ossify into a fixed state that permanently changes brain structures and processes, or so says Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. She is also the widow of John Cacioppo, who wrote the book Loneliness and died in 2018. So she knows of what she speaks.
The good news from Cacioppo and others is that, with commerce ever seeking a high-demand niche for a new product, there may be a pill on the way. One researcher has suggested that the diagnosis could be called “social isolation syndrome.” Based on various research, the pill might make use of a number of different chemicals, a neurosteroid that eases the hypervigilance that arises when a person perceives social threats and therefore makes it more likely they will venture forth, or a hormone like oxytocin, usually associated with breastfeeding, giving birth, and physical contact, which is shown to encourage social behaviors and trust. And betablockers could possibly reduce some of the destructive physical effects of loneliness.
But is a loneliness pill good news? There are certainly those who question it. Loneliness is an emotion cluster—it can be made up of a number of feelings, such as anger, shame, sadness, jealousy, and grief. A “loneliness pill” would be part of a growing approach to broadly treat emotions as mental health problems, with interventions focusing on symptoms not causes. One of the problems with eliminating the symptoms—the feelings that can be so problematic, is that we can become, as one doctor called it, “a medicated, comfortably numb society.” The prevalent use of psychotropic drugs, particularly by young people, has been cited by some authorities as part of the reason for the widespread depression that currently exists—based on an inability to “feel” life’s ups and downs. We are also less likely to take steps to address emotions we can’t really feel.
What to do until the loneliness pill arrives? To help relieve her loneliness, Cacioppo says she’s relying on many of the social fitness exercises that she and her husband validated together, such as making an effort to express gratitude, doing something nice for someone else without expecting something in return, choosing to engage with strangers, and sharing good news with others. “I am living proof of my science,” she says. “I apply it every day.”
Others have noted research that shows that lonely people benefit from physical interactions with pets., which looks to be born out by the many pets added to households during this stressful time.
Finding ways to help others is particularly effective in combating loneliness. As Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, notes, “There is robust evidence that the neurobiology of helping others is one of the most rewarding things a brain can do.” Actively searching for meaning in your life, whether by joining a volunteer organization, movement, or religious group, has also been demonstrated to relieve loneliness, less because you meet other people, but more because it can be an avenue to taking part in something larger than yourself, feeling like you are living your life with a purpose.
So what is the takeaway for the lonely? Not to denigrate or ignore the pain or dislocation felt. But rather to keep in mind that the feelings we have are valid and should be embraced. And at least for now to take some of the steps mentioned above. And embrace the next round of feelings that follow.