President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan congressional resolution to bring an end to the COVID-19 national emergency in April. While closing that chapter in American history is a victory, another, more lethal pandemic has taken its place—loneliness.
According to a report by Harvard University, the pandemic has created deeper feelings of loneliness in Americans. Their data suggests that 36% of all Americans, including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children, feel profound loneliness.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau surveys, Americans have been spending less time with friends and more alone since the pandemic.
“[Loneliness] is often talked about as an epidemic,” said Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at Yale University. “You know, some surveys reveal that around 60 percent of people in the U.S. right now report feeling lonely on a pretty regular basis. And that’s pretty devastating from a public health perspective.”
Health Risks of Loneliness
According to Santos, the rates of loneliness are worse than the rates of obesity and diabetes and have the potential to be just as damaging to the body and mind. People who report feeling lonely are more likely to develop dementia and heart disease. They are also more likely to have a stroke. Lonely people are also more likely to die than people who do not experience persistent loneliness. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy reports that loneliness has the same long-term consequences on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can impair cognitive function, compromise the immune system, and increase chances of developing vascular problems, inflammation, and heart disease. Loneliness also increases the chances of developing anxiety and depression, which both have their own slew of health risks, such as a 65% more likely chance of developing a heart condition, a 64% more likely chance of having a stroke, a 50% more likely chance of developing high blood pressure, and an 87% more likely chance of having arthritis.
How the Pandemic Increased Loneliness
One study found that when mice, historically social creatures, are forced to live in cages alone, the basic architecture of their brains changes, causing nerve cells to shrink. This isn’t far from what began to happen to humans during the pandemic. Another study showed the effects of social distancing on the human brain during the pandemic. The study identified that the neural underpinnings associated with isolation are similar to those of physical hunger.
By April 2020, over half the world’s population was under some form of lockdown, with more than 3.9 billion people in more than 90 countries asked or ordered to stay home by their governments. Even when people were allowed to leave their homes, social distancing was required, and people were forced to wear masks. The back and forth of social distancing, mask-wearing, limiting social contact, and avoiding social events with crowds lasted for almost three years. For many, this relearning of social life was all-consuming, and now, almost impossible to unlearn.
Who is Most at Risk?
Interestingly enough, it is young people, not the elderly, that report the highest numbers of loneliness. Santos said that as a college professor, she is shocked that the rates of loneliness for young people are as high as they are, especially among students who live in dorm rooms on campus surrounded by other students all the time.
Psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, points out that loneliness is more about how to perceive your level of connection to other people rather than your level of social isolation. She said this is why someone who is socially isolated may never experience loneliness while someone who is surrounded by people all the time may feel extreme loneliness.
The reasons for this are mostly still speculative, but there seems to be a strong correlation between young people and their technology usage and levels of loneliness. However, young people were also more diligent in adhering to every CDC guideline of strict social isolation and social distancing, while the elderly were laxer in their approach. This is because young people, especially today, tend to be much more idealistic and trusting, causing them to be more intense in their obedience to government “encouragements” than the elderly, who tend toward a more skeptical and stubborn mindset.
While the elderly were reported to be most at risk for COVID-19, it was the young who were the most extreme and fearful of contracting the virus. According to a poll conducted by The Economist by YouGov, a pollster, more than three in five 18 to 29-year-old Americans were “very” or “somewhat” worried about contracting COVID-19. This percentage was more than double that of Americans 65 years old and older.
What is the Cure for Loneliness?
One practical way to combat loneliness is by significantly lowering the amount of time spent on social media. A study conducted in 2017 showed that participants who are online frequently, defined as 50 or more visits to social media sites per week, have three times the odds of perceived social isolation. Social media gives the allusion of social connection while only leaving people more isolated, lonely, and depressed. Social connections online are frequently based around a common interest or superficial because of how people present false or highly curated identities online. Because of this, deep connections that come from vulnerability are lacking in people who rely on social media for all their relationships. By taking the extra time to invest in relationships outside of social media, people already decrease their overall loneliness astronomically.
Another way people can combat loneliness is by getting involved in a cause they care about. By working toward a higher goal or purpose, a person’s attention is less focused on themself, which ironically increases levels of happiness, peace, and satisfaction. If someone is working with a group that is fighting against pollution in their town, they will develop deep and lasting relationships with those people over their shared goals, similar passions, and shared burdens.
Finally, if someone is experiencing severe levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, it is advised they seek professional therapeutic help until they are in a more stable place.
Loneliness can be life-crippling, but thankfully there is a vaccine for that.
Edited by Sean Mulryan
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