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Cultivating Connection: How to Alleviate Loneliness

Last updated: February 6, 2024

How often do you visit a restaurant and see patrons on their phones despite being seated with friends or loved ones? We’re missing these connections even when they are right in front of us.

Melissa Laughlin Holtz, Mental Health Clinician, ThedaCare Behavioral Health

It’s a classic paradox. Technology has connected individuals like never before, and yet more people are feeling lonely and isolated. Loneliness can lead to serious health concerns — and even early death — causing experts to sound alarms about the issue.

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory calling loneliness and isolation a health epidemic. It notes that loneliness and social isolation can contribute to a worsening of mental and physical health issues.

It’s an issue that affects people across generations and life circumstances. A 2020 Harvard study found that 61% of adults ages 18 to 25 reported feeling serious loneliness, compared with 39% across the general population. In 2023, one in three adults ages 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated from others. Mothers of young children are also at risk, with 51% reporting they are lonely.

People experiencing loneliness are more likely to suffer adverse health consequences including depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, diminished executive function, accelerated cognitive decline or dementia, impaired immune system, higher inflammation, heart disease, stroke, and risk of suicide, says Melissa Laughlin Holtz, a Mental Health Clinician with ThedaCare Behavioral Health.

“Individuals who report feeling lonely are more likely to die an early death than those who do not,” she says.

Unpacking the Uptick

Multiple factors have led to the increase in loneliness. Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic, which in many cases required people to isolate from others, played a part in worsening the issue.

At the same time, loneliness was a problem well before the pandemic. Many variables can influence loneliness. People may feel unwelcome due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, age, or health conditions. This can lead to feelings of isolation.

“Many LGBTQIA+ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color may feel like they are being ‘othered’ or are not welcome in spaces that they want to be,” Laughlin Holtz says. “Older adults and individuals living with disabilities or chronic diseases are another group of people who can feel isolated, especially if it’s hard for them to leave their home.”

Creating Connection

Anyone can feel lonely or isolated. The key to addressing those feelings is finding ways to reach out and get involved in activities you enjoy, Laughlin Holtz says.

Technology can have pluses and minuses when it comes to feeling lonely, she continues. While it connects people whenever and wherever they may be, it can also prevent true communication from happening.

“How often do you visit a restaurant and see patrons on their phones despite being seated with friends or loved ones?” Laughlin Holtz says. “We’re missing these connections even when they are right in front of us.”

Laughlin Holtz offers these ideas for fostering greater connection and well-being:

  • Stop comparing yourself with others. This fits well with taking a break from social media. While social media often seems like an appealing way to maintain connections with loved ones, it can sometimes increase feelings of loneliness.
  • Practice gratitude. Keep a daily gratitude journal where you write down things that you’re grateful for. You can later go back and read them when you’re feeling down.
  • Take time to reflect. This could be journaling, taking a mindful walk, or practicing meditation.
  • Join a club or take a class. Sign up for an activity that gets you out of the house. Volunteering for a local organization can help you feel more connected to other individuals while doing good for your community.
  • Get outdoors. Take a walk or spend time in nature, making sure you pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Time in nature can ease emotional distress and boost overall wellness.
  • Engage in activities. Participate in a hobby or sport you enjoy.
  • Spend time with animals. Pets have been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Open up and talk to someone. This could be a friend, family member, faith leader, primary care provider, or therapist.
  • Develop a routine that provides balance and familiarity. Make a daily schedule that includes physical activity, time with friends or loved ones, a project or hobby, and a calming pleasure.
  • Savor the small stuff. Seemingly minor gestures like smiling at the barista or thanking the bagger at the grocery store can create feelings of connection.

How to Help

Family members and friends may realize someone they know is lonely. Laughlin Holtz says it is important to reach out and let them know you are there and ready to listen.

“You might have to be patient. When someone is lonely, especially if it’s accompanied by poor mental or physical health, they may become angry or feel misunderstood by others,” she says. “You may need to provide encouragement and support, reminding them that when they connect with some help, they will start feeling better.”

Those experiencing loneliness or other mental health struggles can talk to their primary care provider, who can connect them to resources. ThedaCare Behavioral Health also offers many care options, including group therapy and Behavioral Health Walk-in Care in Neenah.

Learn more about care available through ThedaCare Behavioral Health

Tags: anxiety behavioral health depression isolation Loneliness Mental Health

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