The need to connect with others is an innate, evolutionary drive. So when the world was sent into a series of lockdowns due to the pandemic, a whole new epidemic set in: loneliness.
As outlined by Psychology Today, loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desire for social connection and the actual experience of it.
But loneliness isn't always easy to pinpoint, and can impact us in different ways at different stages of life. There are the breakup lonelies, the new person at work lonelies, even the working from home lonelies that still hit hard despite being in a house full of rambunctious siblings or housemates. It’s a terrible feeling that comes and goes, taking many forms that make it all the more confusing to put your finger on. Struggling to identify when we’re experiencing a bout of loneliness is bad enough, but the social pressure to not feel lonely certainly doesn’t help.
Of all the myths around mental health and social isolation, one of the hardest to wrap our heads around is that loneliness isn’t about not having anyone in your life, or the physical circumstance of, say, being alone on a Friday night. Single people who live alone may experience no yearning for others, just as people surrounded by friends and loved ones may still feel the pang of loneliness. Still, the stigma remains. We often associate loneliness with being socially alienated, which is why we erroneously underestimate the pervasiveness of loneliness amongst millennials and Gen Zs, given their hyperconnectedness.
But as a study has recently found, they may be the hardest hit.
Just this month, Telstra’s Talking Loneliness report found that one in two Gen Z (54%) and Millennials (51%) reported that they regularly feel lonely — a figure much higher than that of other generations.
The same study also showed that, despite the increased demand for authenticity and openness about mental health, Gen Z was the most likely to say that they felt too embarrassed to admit that they felt lonely to others (58% vs the average of 48%). And, according to psychologist Nancy Sokarno, who works closely with these age groups in her work, the reemergence into public life may only exacerbate the problem.
Loneliness can teach us to cherish other people and their company, but also teach us that we shouldn’t depend on them for our own happiness.
“During a time like this, feelings of loneliness can be heightened as people can be made more aware of how alone they really feel,” she tells Refinery29. “They can see others enjoying spending time with family or attending social events and this can make them compare their own situation to others.”
Loneliness plays a massive, adverse role in a person's mental health. It can cause us to feel isolated and overwhelmed, often leading to increased distress due to negative thoughts and feelings.
“Loneliness risks distress in the forms of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and poor health behaviour like disordered eating, substance use, and poor sleep quality,” Sokarno explains. “We may have feelings of hopelessness or paranoia during this time, especially for those that might not have had familial connections close during lockdowns. These individuals may then turn to harmful coping mechanisms such as [uncontrolled] alcohol consumption, drug-taking or misusing medicine.” And that’s just the beginning.
To really break down why we’re all so damn lonely right now, Sokarno dives further into the social and emotional sides to loneliness and tells us why it’s rife among young people.
The digital divide
Despite knowing that social media isn’t always all that healthy for us, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the digitally fluent generations spending upwards of three hours a day scrolling on their phones, would experience more social fulfilment. But, as Sokarno explains, it’s exactly this habit that is contributing to our lonely feels. “While the digital world is seen as a social space, you usually don’t get the deeper connections that humans need (and get) from real life,” she says. “Ironically, these platforms that are designed to bring people closer together, can in turn, contribute to and heighten feelings of loneliness and fear of personal failure — all of which impact negatively on our mental health.”
Of course, the Internet is a melting pot of creativity and mental relief, but it’s almost impossible to regulate your own tech habits in lockdown. “Yes, social media can give people an outlet for self-expression and a connection to others (that they might not normally be able to connect with), but it also has dangerous implications.”
“Excessive use of social media can promote a ‘compare and despair’ mindset,” Sokarno asserts, adding that as much as we know this and tell ourselves not to, we unconsciously get bogged down in comparing our behind-the-scenes lived experiences to snippets of other people’s highlight reels.
“The social comparison trap can quickly make people question their own life, their relationships and overall start to make them feel pretty inadequate. Unfortunately, those feelings of inadequacy can be an underlying cause of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. For the younger generations, it is an important reminder that what is seen online or what others might portray, isn’t always the way it truly is.”
That said, we’d be remiss to ignore how digital advances have enabled us to access mental health services, online communities and meet people we never would have in person. Particularly for those who live alone, or in remote areas, there’s a world of connectivity at your fingertips. It’s just important to keep some perspective when it comes to things like social media.
You can have friends and family and still feel lonely
We often get confused by the idea that being around people will remedy these feelings of isolation. But, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As we know, connecting with people can take many forms, but knowing what kind of connection you’re longing for can help to address the issue. According to Sokarno, the best kind of connections involve a combination of four types of intimacy — emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical.
“Firstly, if we look at emotional intimacy, things like being genuinely interested in someone else’s feelings, affirming their thoughts and showing you care are ways that you can connect with another person on a deeper level,” says Sokarno. “Then, for the mental side of things, having meaningful and stimulating conversations are a way to connect. Also sharing the same values and interests in another person can help foster a sense of connection.”
“Then there’s spiritual intimacy, which focuses on having respect for each other’s beliefs, having a shared purpose, and/or nurturing each other’s inner peace. And lastly, touch, which is an obvious one, but something that humans crave — and have been severely deprived of in the past year and a half. As Sokarno notes, the loss of physical touch, no matter how small, can easily impact a person’s ability to feel connected to others.
Loneliness looks different for everyone
Just as the cause of loneliness can differ from person to person, so too can the manifestation. “Loneliness can show differently for different types of people,” Sokarno tells us, adding that this also can make it hard to determine exactly how it will affect each individual.
“Everyone’s psychology is layered, and while we might assume that an introvert is more susceptible to loneliness because they tend to be alone a lot of the time, loneliness and being alone isn’t the same thing. It might be in the introvert’s nature to find solace by themselves, but this doesn’t mean they’re more predisposed to loneliness,” she explains, acknowledging that the opposite applies to introverts.
“It could be assumed that extroverts, who find solace in socialising, aren’t likely to experience loneliness, but that statement isn’t always true. While an extrovert might spend a lot of time socialising or being around people, they might not be getting those true deeper connections and therefore could feel lonely on a different level.”
What you can do to combat loneliness
Loneliness, particularly the kind that is government-sanctioned and not self-sanctioned, can actually be rather transformative, says Sokarno. “It can teach us to cherish other people and their company, but also teach us that we shouldn’t depend on them for our own happiness. Loneliness can also teach us is that we aren’t really alone and there are many ways we can connect with others.”
Identify which of your needs isn’t being met.
If you are looking to get ahead of these feelings before they spiral, or if you begin to notice unhealthy habits forming as a result, the first step towards curbing loneliness is, you guessed it, acknowledging that there is a problem. “Take some time to really understand how you feel and remember that you are not alone in feeling this way — just look at those statistics!” If you are keen to move on, read on for Sokarno’s tips.
Reach out to a friend
“Place an emphasis on meaningful communication wherever you can get it – really tell others how you feel about them and what they mean to you. Make a point of regularly checking in with those you love — even if they’re not big on talking on the phone, still give them a call or a text, because that simple gesture can show that you care.”
If you don’t feel like you have people to turn to regularly to ease feelings of isolation, look for ways you can have connections in other scenarios. “The simple act of smiling or beginning a conversation with a neighbour or shopkeeper can be unexpectedly uplifting,” says Sokarno. “Don’t be afraid to be the first to reach out and say hello — a small conversation in small talk can have you feeling socially connected to people again (even if it’s only in a small way). Or write a letter to a loved one or a long-lost friend — the act of putting your thoughts and feelings on a page and knowing someone else will read it will make you feel more connected.”
Leave it to the professionals
If you do feel as though the loneliness is starting to affect you on a deeper level, reach out to a professional. Anyone from a GP through to a psychologist can help support you if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and are struggling to cope. Whilst loneliness itself may not feel like a chronic mental health issue, Sokarno notes that it can lead to other problems like anxiety or depression. Look to organisations that provide free over-the-phone counselling services with trained experts, all from the comfort of your own home.
It is perfectly ok to feel different during this time
Ultimately, for many of us, we will feel loneliness at some point in our lives, so it is important to accept that it does happen to everyone no matter what social media may have us believe. Sure, it’s grim and it’s not necessarily enjoyable, but many of us can learn to love spending time on our own, particularly when we know that it won’t last.
All around the world, the pandemic continues to throw our lives into disarray, and so many of us have faced immense hardships and foiled plans. But while it's invaluable to acknowledge the toll it's had on our mental health, the good news is that we’re almost in the clear, and there are always people willing to help. And often, that's all you need to do — reach out.