Do you live alone?
Have you felt isolated, like you have no one to talk to?
Are you homebound because of illness, disability, loss of your job, or lack of transportation?
If any of these things are true for you, then your suffering may be due to social isolation, also called loneliness.
Or maybe you have a parent, friend, or acquaintance who is lonely and experiencing social isolation, and you’d like to help.
There are ways to relieve these feelings!
In this article, I’m going to give you solutions for social isolation, and write about how lonely people can stop feeling isolated. I’ll give you examples of social isolation, reasons why you might be feeling socially isolated, effects of loneliness, and ways to cope with it.
Are you lonely and socially isolated?
I’ve lived alone in rural areas for 18 years. When I talked about my lack of social life to a professional recently, I learned that what I have experienced is called social isolation. It comes from geographical, psychological, and experiential causes.
Here are some of my experiences with isolation. Do any of them sound familiar to you?
- I sometimes feel that I have no one to talk to who understands me and cares about me. I talk to my dog and cat, and they care, but they don’t say anything. They look at me soulfully, though.
- I live 14 miles from the nearest town. Even when I go to town to do errands, I don’t see anyone I know.
- When I attend the town’s summer festival, I rarely see anyone I know. When I attend our community political caucuses every two years, I see familiar faces and can enter into a few conversations, but these quickly end because we have little in common except our political views.
- When I go out on a writing assignment, I see people I know and exchange small talk before the meetings start, but that quickly ends because we all have work to do.
- My siblings live over 1,000 miles from me and from each other. We sometimes go several years without seeing each other.
- My daughter lives 150 miles away. I see her once a month.
Social isolation can be a painful feeling, and if you don’t deal with it, it can lead to serious consequences including depression, impaired immune system response, and other physical and mental health consequences.
Writing about her own experience with isolation when she moved to a new city, Jessica Olien commented –
“Feeling uncertain, I began to research loneliness and came across several alarming recent studies. Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.
The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.
Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it.
Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.”
So as you can see, loneliness and social isolation are serious matters.
Let’s see how they are defined.
What is social isolation?
Wikipedia defines it this way: “Social isolation refers to a complete or near-complete lack of contact with people and society for members of a social species….”
People are meant to live in families and groups, as they have for thousands of years. But in modern industrialized societies during the past 100 years, people have become separated from their families by changes in living patterns, the concept of “the nuclear family”, increased mobility, and other reasons.
A psychology website describes social isolation like this:
“Isolation—the experience of being separated from others—may result from being physically removed from others, as when a person lives in a remote area, or it can result from the perception of being removed from a community, such as when a person feels socially or emotionally isolated from others.
“Social isolation is distinct from the experience of solitude, which is simply the state of being alone, usually by choice. Taking time to be alone can be a healthy, rejuvenating experience that allows us to reconnect with our own needs, goals, beliefs, values, and feelings.
“But when a person experiences too much solitude or feels socially isolated from others, he or she may develop feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, helplessness, or depression, among others.”
In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Stephen Ilardi describes the problem of social isolation:
“The best research confirms it: Americans are now perilously isolated (link is external). In a recent comprehensive study by scientists at Duke University, researchers have observed a sharp decline in social connectedness over the past 20 years.
“Remarkably, 25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all – not a single person they can confide in. And over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their immediate family. The situation today is much worse today than it was when similar data were gathered in 1985. (At that time, only 10% of Americans were completely alone).”
Social isolation is widespread in the U.S.
It’s a problem we rarely hear about.
And it’s not just Americans who experience social isolation. People in industrialized societies around the world can experience social isolation at different points in their lives.
While social isolation has been recognized in older people, it can occur in younger people as well, when they encounter new situations such as moving to a new city or even a new country, taking a job in a different company or field, or losing contact with friends and relatives for a multitude of reasons.
Even working as a traveling salesperson, drug representative, or IT consultant can bring on feelings of isolation and loneliness: staying in a different hotel every night, flying from city to city making presentations, fixing problems, etc.
Have you ever taken a new job in a new city and realized that you don’t know anybody there? You don’t even know how to find a grocery store or locate a new apartment.
This is another common situation that can bring on loneliness.
Reasons why we feel isolated or lonely
We can experience feelings of isolation or loneliness for many reasons. The feelings can be temporary or long-lasting. Here are some examples that you may recognize:
–Mary avoids going to her card-playing group because all the women there talk about is their grandchildren, and Mary doesn’t have any grandchildren. She feels odd and left out. So she stays home and reads a book instead of seeing her friends.
–Jason lost his job recently and is having trouble making his rent and car payments. He has looked for work for several weeks. Although his friends call and ask him to go to dinner with them or see a concert, Jason turns them down because he is short on money. Pretty soon Jason finds himself alone day after day and night after night. He thinks there is nowhere he can go with friends that doesn’t cost money. He misses his friends and feels more and more lonely.
–Anica was divorced a year ago. To get away from the bad memories she has from her marriage, she moved to a new city and got a job there. Many of the other workers at her job belong to a religious group that looks down on divorced people. They don’t include Anica in their work lunches or weekend plans. Anica finds herself going home alone every evening and has no one to go to dinner with or spend Saturdays shopping or visiting museums, as she used to do with friends in the city she came from. She feels depressed and lonely.
These lonely people are having trouble finding others to spend time with, and they don’t know what to do to help themselves. They realize that they need friends, but have not been able to find new ones.
Sometimes we can point to the reasons for our feelings, but sometimes we can’t.
We can be isolated for many reasons or situations in which we find ourselves:
- An illness keeps us homebound
- A disability makes it difficult for us to travel
- Demography (being an older person in a community of young people)
- Economics (lacking the money to go out and socialize)
- Lack of mobility (no public transportation and no car)
- Traumatic experiences make us fearful (for example, military veterans and crime victims)
- Cultural rules (that often prevent women born into male-dominated cultural groups from participating in activities outside the family)
- Family responsibilities (such as care-giving for an ill family member or parenting multiple or difficult children).
- A job requires us to travel frequently and for long periods away from home.
These are just some of the reasons why we may find ourselves feeling alone. There are many others that can affect any of us.
Do any of them apply to you?
Another set of reasons for loneliness or social isolation were listed in an article published on www.lifeline.org :
- Losing a loved one or friend through death or relocation
- Lack of close family ties
- Living alone
- Difficulties in meeting new people due to access issues, introverted personalities, or feeling like you don’t belong
- A mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
- Fear of rejection from others or feelings of being “different” or stigmatized by society
- Retirement from work, home relocation, starting out in a new role or community
- Lack of purpose or meaning in life
- Language barriers
- Geographic isolation
- Feeling lost in the crowd
Military veterans and isolation
Military veterans who have served in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet Nam, Bosnia, Kuwait, and other overseas locations have seen things and experienced things that civilians in the U.S., U.K., and Australia cannot imagine.
Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that makes it difficult for them to relate meaningfully to other people. They may withdraw from family and friends after returning to civilian life.
Several groups have been formed to help returning veterans. One military veterans’ website explained veterans’ feelings this way:
“Difficult experiences can be harder to cope with when it feels like no one, not even family or friends, understands what you went through. Connecting with other Veterans and reaching out for support can help to overcome isolation and increase enjoyment of life.
“Some Veterans show signs of social withdrawal or social isolation while transitioning from military to civilian life or at other times of change in their lives. Other Veterans and Service members may have been avoiding other people and activities for a long time and have become uncomfortable being around other people more generally.”
“Social withdrawal and social isolation can make it difficult to do the things you normally would enjoy or sometimes make it hard to get through the day. Some of the effects of isolation can include feelings of loneliness, alcohol or drug problems, and trouble sleeping. Left unchecked, social withdrawal or isolation can lead to or be associated with depression.”
If you are a military veteran, I urge you to make connections with other veterans who understand what you are going through and can help you overcome feelings of isolation and difference.
“Every day, Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard connect with useful resources and effective treatments for dealing with social withdrawal and social isolation. If withdrawal and isolation are affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
- Your family doctor: Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who doe
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center: VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans
- A spiritual or religious advisor”
Effects of social isolation
Now that you know what social isolation is, what can cause it, and who may suffer from it, let’s look at the effects of social isolation.
Social isolation and loneliness can affect our quality of life and well-being, adversely affecting health and increasing our use of health and social care services. It can literally make us sick.
There’s more information about how loneliness affects us physically and mentally here: http://www.livescience.com/18800-loneliness-health-problems.html
Social isolation can lead to physical and mental health problems. Depression, immune system disorders, higher rates of cancer and heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, and other conditions can be made worse by loneliness or social isolation.
So as you can see, loneliness is dangerous to your health.
John Cacioppo explained that loneliness is not something that humans are used to.
“The reasons trace back to humanity’s evolutionary history, when people needed each other to stay alive. Loneliness doesn’t just make people feel unhappy, it actually makes them feel unsafe — mentally and physically.
“This powerful evolutionary force bound prehistoric people to those they relied on for food, shelter and protection, to help them raise their young and carry on their genetic legacy. Cacioppo surmises that the distress people feel when they drift toward the edges of a group serves as a warning — like physical pain — that they need to reengage or face danger.”
Coping with Social Isolation
So what can we do about social isolation or loneliness when we are experiencing it?
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways we can cope with social isolation. Each coping method requires us to take some initiative.
You can take steps to copy with social isolation. It can be relieved or reduced by
- Joining social/hobby groups or sports activities, no matter what your age
- Connecting or reconnecting with friends or family by phone, online, or letter-writing
- Becoming a member of a community (such as a church or advocacy group if geography and mobility permit it
- Getting out of the house for social functions, meetings, exercise, shopping, visiting friends, going out for coffee, going to a movie, play, or concert
- Going to a library to get books or movies or attend a lecture
- Taking a skills-building course or course that relates to one of your interests like history or art (usually offered at adult education institutions)
- Getting a pet to be a comfort and companion in times of stress and ill-health
- Taking part in volunteer opportunities in person or by telephone or computer that help you focus on ways you can help others
- Receiving encouragement from loved ones for, or validation of, attempts to reach out
- Discussing hopes and fears with a friend or loved one
- Identifying new social groups and making connections with them
- Receiving therapies such as psychotherapy, massage, aromatherapy, and acupuncture
- Taking part in community groups
- Attending church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious or spiritual
- Taking part in cultural activities specific to your ethnic or national origin. https://www.lifeline.org.au/Get-Help/Facts—Information/Loneliness/Loneliness-and-Isolation
Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying solitude and being alone for a while.
We all need opportunities for peace and quiet and being alone with our thoughts.
Times like these can make us feel refreshed and give us the energy to get back to our work or activities with other people.
The problem with social isolation is that it can drain off your happiness as well as give you physical and mental problems.
Psychologist Bob Dempsey shares four ways to increase your individual happiness that I think would help you in a blog post.
What if you just feel lonely once in a while?
Sometimes your feelings of social isolation are temporary and caused by short-term job relocation or travel for medical treatment.
“People with a good self-image and strong social skills may need only short-term help building new relationships … but others may require help continually,” wrote one specialist.
You can reduce the pain of short-term loneliness by comparing your situation with other people’s situations. It also helps to have someone to confide in and talk about your feelings and thoughts. http://www.ec-online.net/knowledge/SB/SBisolation.html
Now it’s your turn –
If you’ve recognized yourself in any of these scenarios, then now you know you can do something about it!
You can take one or two of these coping suggestions and follow up on them. You are the key to helping yourself feel better.
No, your isolation is not going to go away in one day or as a result of one telephone call you make, but it’s a start.
You know the saying – “A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step.”
So take that step. Reach out to other people – friends, family, or strangers – and initiate contact in at least one way today.
Let me know if these suggestions help you!