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Health

The Keys to Fighting Loneliness

Feeling lonely can affect your health. 8 ways to grow your relationships and feel more connected — right now.

How did you feel on Valentine’s Day? Was it everything, or did it leave you a little ... meh?

After big holidays like this, we may think about our relationships (or lack thereof). We may ask ourselves: Do I feel connected? Fulfilled? Do I feel seen and cared for?

And it’s not just romantic relationships that matter. Platonic connections, including those with our families and friends, do too. And when these are off balance, or just off, period, we can feel isolated.

Being physically alone doesn’t automatically translate to loneliness. You can feel peaceful while taking solo time, after all. But if you feel isolated, it can lead to loneliness. If that happens, it may help to at least know you’re not alone — at least not with the feeling. In a survey of more than 20,000 adults, nearly 50 percent of U.S. respondents reported “sometimes or always feeling alone or left out,” and 1 in 4 “rarely or never feels as though there are people who understand them,” Cigna reported in 2019.

So what is loneliness, really? It’s a distressing and highly subjective experience that happens when we perceive our social relationships to be less than our desired quantity and quality, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A key word there is “subjective.” You can feel lonely while eating dinner with your spouse or children. While surrounded by coworkers. And while you’re at home, buried under the covers.

As we speed through life, our social connections can suffer along the way.

But while loneliness is subjective, it can have health consequences. It’s been linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diminished sleep quality, increased inflammation and decreased viral immunity, even after controlling for various other factors, reports University of Chicago Medicine, a not-for-profit academic medical health system. Loneliness also can leave us feeling irritable and depressed.

The good news? It’s typically reversible, Chicago Medicine reports. I’ve written about health and wellness for more than a decade, and even teach wellness workshops, so I also know it’s possible to fight loneliness.

Are you ready? Let’s go. Together.

Get real with yourself. Remember loneliness is a state of mind. So get clear on what you’re feeling and why. Don’t bury yourself with work or Scandal reruns and hope the feelings will go away. Understand what you want and what you feel you’re missing.

Reach out to friends and loved ones. Instead of waiting for them to come to you, ask to connect. You never know, they may be lonely, too. (Just remember that it’s not enough to be in someone’s physical presence; we can crave things like shared life experience.) So call a friend, set a coffee date and see how others are faring. Regularly engage with people and things that leave you feeling happy.

Focus on quality. If you’re in a romantic relationship or spend time with others and still feel lonely, think about why. Are you doing things you dislike? Having superficial conversations instead of connecting deeply? Not spending meaningful moments together? If so, consider how to have more quality connections as opposed to those that feel harmful or less fulfilling. And discuss your feelings with your loved ones.

Examine your social media use. Social media may help you feel connected. But taking an online time-out can give you more time to interact with people in real life.

Beware of comparisons. Speaking of social media, stay true to yourself. It can be cool to see what others are up to, but if seeing their highlight reel leaves you in the darkroom, take note of that.

Join a hobby group. Be open to finding new friends via social groups designed around things that interest you, such as those through Meetup.com. Or find social events via sites like Facebook or Eventbrite (disclosure: I’ve written for this site). In these settings, talking to strangers can be a good thing.

Volunteer your time. Participating in voluntary services “is significantly predictive” of better mental and physical health, life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness, wrote researchers in a 2018 study on volunteering in BMC Public Health. Whether you’re visiting an animal shelter or serving homeless families, volunteering can get you outside (yes, it’s time to get out!) and connected to others. Just two hours a week can have a positive effect on your life and health, according to one 2018 AARP story. Find an activity near you via AARP’s Create the Good website.

Talk to your health care provider. Tell a professional if you’ve been feeling lonely and have questions or concerns. Your provider may suggest things like counseling, behavior changes or even medication to help, so keep her or him looped in.

And no matter how you cope, remember feelings of loneliness don’t have to be permanent. You have the power to ask for help and make changes to pull through.

Learn more about how to cope with loneliness via this AARP story and this one.

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