Loneliness – what it is and how to deal with it

By Michelle Lim (alum)

Given the latest social distancing measures put into place by the government, loneliness – and how to avoid it – is something we need to seriously consider. Below is an adaptation of an article that ran in our 2018 issue of Trinity Today by loneliness expert Dr Michelle Lim.

Loneliness during COVID-19

While COVID-19 is the most serious pandemic of our time, loneliness is touted the next public health epidemic of the 21st century. In this context, loneliness is considered a subjective experience of social isolation and is not to be confused with physical isolation or an individual’s desire to be alone. Loneliness is also more closely linked to the quality of relationships rather than quantity. So, one could be surrounded by others and still feel lonely, or one could be alone, but still feel happy. 

All of us are vulnerable to loneliness because the condition signals unmet social needs and is akin to other human necessities such as thirst and hunger. As such, loneliness can serve as a valuable cue to reach out to and to rely on others. This reliance is critical, as it stops us from having to depend solely on our own resources to survive, thrive and flourish. 

Unfortunately, everyone will feel lonely at some point. For most people, it’s transient, but for others, it can be a persistent heavy feeling. Loneliness can be triggered by significant events such as life transitions (e.g. starting university, moving away from home or having grown children leave the house) and adverse circumstances, such as bereavement, loss of mobility, or illness. 

Both physical and mental health can suffer as a result of loneliness. In fact, the condition is associated with a 26 per cent increased likelihood of mortality and has been equated to being as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness increases our risk of experiencing poorer health outcomes from decreased immunity, increased inflammatory response, elevated blood pressure, decreases in cognitive health, and a faster progression of Alzheimer’s disease. While loneliness is most commonly examined with depression, evidence from large population studies show that having social anxiety also increases the odds of feeling lonely.  

What can we do?

While loneliness is a serious condition, there are things we can do to prevent it. First, having strong and meaningful relationships is key. 

We all know friendships are important, but conscious effort is required to maintain them. Sometimes it can be too easy to overlook fundamental relationship building skills that keep people close, such as reciprocity and showing supporting behaviours. It’s also important to understand that friendships are dynamic and will change over the years – losing and gaining friends is part and parcel of this process. 

That said, there are a number of things you can do to ensure you stay connected to those around you:

  • Improve current relationships. Making new friends can be difficult, so aim to improve the ones you already have, including your family. Now's the time to call or videochat your family and friends – perhaps including those you haven't contacted in a while. 
  • Show kindness. Kindness is a way of connecting with others, even if they’re strangers. Acts of kindness come with a low chance of social rejection, so can help develop closer bonds. Everyone, including doctors, neighbours, supermarket assistants and other frontline service providers, all deserve an extra dose of kindness at this time. 
  • Volunteer. Volunteering lets you do things for others without expecting anything in return. By engaging in meaningful and purposeful work you can connect to your community and improve your overall wellbeing. Look out for online volunteering opportunities that you can engage with from home. 

About the author

Dr Michelle H Lim graduated from the Trinity College Pathways School in 1996. She is now a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University of Technology and chairs the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness scientific advisory committee. She is considered Australia’s leading expert on loneliness and regularly appears in national media.

The original version of this article appeared in issue 87 of Trinity Today.

30 Mar 2020
Category: People