Loneliness is an internal state that often is independent of our external environment. It is a state in which we feel alone. This can be an objective as well as a subjective experience, despite evidence for or against. We can feel lonely in a crowded room or even in a relationship. Why does this happen? While there are definite situations in which the person's internal state of loneliness is congruent with their exterior world, many times loneliness is self-created as we are not allowing ourselves to view things more objectively. This is usually coupled with an underlying chronic sadness or depression that has gone untreated (and sometimes not recognized) for some time. Regardless whether it is sadness or depression, we have a need to feel connected to something.

To differentiate, sadness is a basic human emotion that we all experience on a regular basis that has little to no impact on our day-to-day lives. Depression can be quite debilitating and should be diagnosed by a professional (not by ourselves or via the internet). If we look at sadness-related loneliness, hammering out a plan to feel connected to something like a group, whether in person or online, would be the first step. Folks experiencing depression would benefit greatly from being seen by a mental health professional as well as getting connected with some sort of social support system as I’ve mentioned.

Some early signs of depression may include gradual changes in sleep and/or appetite. The person may experience a decrease in motivation to engage in activities they previously found enjoyable. There is a general sense of apathy and indifference in their day-to-day life. If this progresses for more days than not and for most of each day, this is a very telling early sign of depression. Certainly, if the depression worsens and the sense of loneliness becomes more profound, it could lead to thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness, and, in very severe cases, possible suicidal ideations.

There are many things you can do to manage these feelings and emotions. The number one thing I would say is never fight back. We don't ever want to fight a negative emotion. Why? That which you resist, persists. Therefore, acknowledge you are having the feeling, don't judge yourself for having the feeling, and choose to do something different. I would say this for loneliness and for any other negative emotion. Now, some folks would say you should start by identifying why you are feeling lonely. To this, I say that's not always the best first route as it prevents you from taking any action. I feel that doing something about it first, before you know the why, is more beneficial. If you suspend action to find the why, what happens when you find out the why? You have to take action anyway. Taking action while you are searching for your why is essentially killing two birds with one stone.

What actions can you take? As mentioned, the undercurrent of loneliness is a need for connection. We would do well to shift that need into a want at some point but for now, we will go with need. What are some ways in which you can feel connected to someone/something? Look for volunteer activities in your area. This is an environment where the playing field is leveled and you don't have to be too concerned with agendas of other people. See what kind of groups or social gatherings are in town. This could be in the form of a book club, bowling league, or dance classes. Some sites even give you the opportunity to create your very own social gathering, if you feel that is for you. However, don't give up if the first thing you try doesn't work out. You need to keep going until you find the one that works for you.

Isolation can have an impact on your mental as well as physical body. In our current situation (COVID-19), isolation is serving a grander purpose and while annoying for some, we know it's temporary and it's not something that is a byproduct of an underlying emotional issue. Isolation that is influenced by emotional factors, however, will take its toll on your mind and body slowly over a period of time. Remember that our bodies get very used to routines. In our continued isolation, we may very well become stagnant. Our minds and bodies shift towards this being the new normal, thereby making it the new normal at all levels. We may start to see changes in our bodies such as weight loss or gain, gastrointestinal changes, and even shifts in other bodily functions. Our ability to perceive things becomes skewed toward the negative. Mental sharpness may start to dull. Our decision making and problem solving will likely diminish due to the decrease in activity.

There is a definite difference between being alone and feeling lonely. I would say choice and state of mind determines the difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone implies a choice to be so. To some extent, most are okay with being alone. A choice is involved in being alone. Being lonely isn't something someone chooses to do, as it is more of an emotional and mental response to a perception. The perception is one of lack and it's assigned to who we are as people.

In general, loneliness affects everyone. What differs is the degree in which it is personally experienced. Marginalized populations feel it more. As a gay man growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, loneliness was something I experienced daily (with intermittent periods of depression) as I had no one to really relate to and no one to confide in about my experience. So anyone from a minority/marginalized population will definitely feel lonelier than their non-marginalized/non-minority peers due to lack of access to other persons they can connect with.

Tags: loneliness, coping, psychology, relationships, depression, mental health