The loneliness epidemic: A silent battle

Samira Felix
News Editor

An overwhelming feeling, a crushing weight in her chest, a persistent lump in her throat and the urge to cry for no apparent reason are the physical manifestations of loneliness that plagues Julia Tenan, a senior psychology and criminal justice minor at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. To her it’s a familiar feeling that began in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

graphic by Samira Felix
graphic by Samira Felix

“That pit in your stomach feels like you’re in the pit,” Tenan said. “When you’re in the moment, it’s so hard not to feel like that because you’re waiting for things to change.”

Unfortunately, Tenan’s story is not unique, but one of many. 

According to the January 2024 Healthy Minds Monthly Poll from the American Psychiatric Association,  30% of adults ages 18-34 experience feelings of loneliness at least once a week. Loneliness was declared an epidemic by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in May 2023.

Loneliness is a complex feeling of disconnection from others, regardless of whether someone is physically alone. Loneliness and social isolation, the objective lack of social relationships, social roles and social interaction, are often viewed as the same thing, but they differ. Loneliness is a subjective experience that comes from the lack of meaningful social connections with others, which can be interactions, relationships, roles and the sense of connection with people, communities or society.

“I think it’s (social connection) what makes us human,” said Milena Batanova, director of research and evaluation of the Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Humans are meant to be social species. Since the dawn of time, we have evolved to function in groups and to thrive as a result of our group membership. We need to feel bonded and belonging with others.”

Batanova said the disconnection is because a person lacks social networks or a sense of social integration. It can also be because they lack close attachments and intimacy.

“It’s like this really painful experience of disconnection, feeling really disconnected from yourself and or others in various ways,” Batanova said.

Sara Maju, a 26-year-old translator in Spain said she has always been very social and has no problem making new friendships, but she struggles with feeling accepted among other people. At times when she is surrounded by people, she can still feel a bit lonely. On the outside it can seem as if she is completely fine, but in reality, she feels disconnected from them.

“I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding about what loneliness is and associate that with being alone, but I really enjoy being alone, but this is different,” Maju said. “It’s like feeling like I wasn’t there with them even though I was.”

Maju said these feelings can strike at any moment, which makes her question why she is feeling lonely.

“Sometimes I’m doing pretty good, or that month has been pretty good in general with everything else, and suddenly I’m like, ‘Why am I feeling like this? Why do I (feel) the urge to cry or just go hide somewhere?,’” Maju said.

Types of loneliness

The three main types of loneliness according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, a non-profit organization that closed in April 2024, but provided research regarding loneliness and voiced the need that tackle chronic loneliness:  

  • Social or relational loneliness, the perceived absence of quality of social friendships or family connections; 
  • Emotional or intimate loneliness, the absence of meaningful relationships like a spouse or a significant other;
  • Existential or collective loneliness, a feeling of separateness from others and the wider world.

“There’s some variation within and across these dimensions or types, but the general idea is that it is multi-dimensional,” Batanova said. “It’s not just one experience and it can carry different reasons and therefore different outcomes for people.”

Daniel Russell, emeritus professor of English at Iowa State University said he thinks part of the reason that has led to people being interested in loneliness in recent years are the negative consequences of loneliness. 

In 1978 Russell helped develop the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-item questionnaire that is still being used to measure how lonely a person is. 

“We developed it to help stimulate loneliness research, and it certainly seems to have done that,” Russell said. 

According to the “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” advisory published in 2023 by Murthy, loneliness is a significant predictor of premature death and poor health. Loneliness can lead to cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, cognitive decline, an increased risk of dementia in older adults, depression and anxiety, and suicide and self-harm.

Tenan began to feel lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic that robbed her of the end of her senior year of high school and freshman year of college when school for most Americans went online for more than a year. 

She said during her freshman year of college, she would constantly be alone in her dorm room with the blinds closed. She would not brush her teeth, her hair or change her clothes. The only time she left her dorm was to use the bathroom, since classes were online and she had food in her room. The heaviness in her chest that came with her feelings of loneliness was also very strong at this time.

Four years later she still feels lonely at times, and it brings tears to her eyes while talking about the subject, but she has learned to cope with those feelings.

“I definitely found ways to cope with the loneliness,” Tenan said. “But it never really goes away. Social media will always be around. I actually recently deleted Instagram because I’m tired of being upset about it. I’m tired of being lonely.”

Tenan said social media is a trigger for her because when she did have the platforms downloaded on her phone, seeing people going out and having fun made her realize that she did not have close relationships.

Effects of loneliness

Victoria Miranda, an administrative assistant in Ontario, said she has always been a person who struggles with the whole concept of loneliness and she also struggles with being alone. Her feelings tend to arise when she is around groups of people that she does not feel connected to because she feels like she does not belong.

Her feelings of loneliness have also exacerbated her mental health conditions.

“I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, panic attacks…and it’s definitely hard, in a sense of when you feel lonely,” Miranda said. “It’s that state of just being with oneself, which can bring a lot of anxiety when it comes to constantly thinking about things, which I do because I am an over-thinker.”

For Anna Stenzel, a marketing representative in Chicago, the COVID-19 pandemic and decision to switch from the University of Illinois to the University of Colorado at Boulder in the fall of 2020 to be closer to home was her introduction to loneliness.

During the first few months of the pandemic, she felt isolated from everything and she did not have anyone to talk to besides her family. Once she started college those feelings of loneliness settled down, but then she moved to Chicago in 2022, where she did not know anyone and those feelings of isolation, missing out and feeling lonely arose again. 

Stenzel said the physical manifestations of loneliness would happen at random moments. 

“I would be on a walk by myself listening to music, not really thinking about anything in particular and that sort of immense pressure and the welling of tears would start, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it,” Stenzel said.

Now Stenzel does not feel lonely often because she feels confident in herself and has grown to appreciate her own company. She has also learned to cope with those feelings by journaling or sitting in a coffee shop where she is surrounded by people even if she is not necessarily with them.

“I’ve really realized that nurturing friendships is better than having a high quantity of friendships,” Stenzel said. “I think that helps a lot with my loneliness.”

Pros and cons of social media

According to the “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” advisory: “We have reason to be concerned about the impact of some kinds of technology use on our relationships, our degree of social connection, and our health.” Technology like social media or remote work have dramatically changed how people live, work, communicate and socialize and it can either enhance or detract from social connection.

Stenzel said when she first experienced loneliness, she deleted social media and she turned off the notifications on her phone because she felt she was waiting for a message to arrive that never would. When she moved to Chicago after graduating college, she downloaded social media on her phone and it was a much more positive experience because she was actively looking for creators who were dealing with the same feelings as she was. The content consisted of people going on solo dates and talking about their experience with loneliness.

“Seeing other people do that made me feel so much better about doing those things by myself and realizing that it’s not always loneliness, it’s sometimes just like an opportunity to be by myself and with myself,” Stenzel said.

Maju said for her social media can be a good distraction from her feelings, but sometimes it can make her feel lonelier.

“If you see someone else’s life and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s perfect or that’s they definitely not feel the same way I do’ even though you don’t really know and they could be feeling the same way,” Maju said. But the things they’re showing are just making you feel like ‘Oh, no, they’re fine. Everybody else is fine. And it’s just me.’ I think it can be really harming sometimes.”

Miranda said social media plays a negative role in her feelings of loneliness because it paints a picture-perfect life and it brings her down knowing that she is not where other people are.

“There’s so many people in the world that feel the same exact way, but we never know because…it (social media) is just this fake ideation of things when in reality, not everybody can do things that everybody else is doing,” Miranda said.

Batanova said there are plenty of studies that show if a person goes on a social media diet their wellbeing improves, but there are also studies that indicate that social media can provide social connections and a sense of belonging.

“I see both pros and cons to social media, but certainly, it’s something that has to be managed and thoughtfully used,” Batanova said.

Coping mechanisms for loneliness

Loneliness is a subjective experience, so some people may only feel lonely at certain times while others experience chronic loneliness, which is a deep feeling of loneliness that goes on for a long time.

Tenan, Maju, Miranda and Stenzel each have their own experiences with loneliness and they have all found ways to manage those feelings.

“At the end of the day, you only have yourself, so you have to sort of be okay with the feelings of loneliness and you have to adapt,” Miranda said. “You have to figure out ways that you feel comfortable enough to be alone, because if you don’t it’s only going to cause more negative stuff for you to feel inside.”

When she is feeling lonely Tenan finds distractions which can be arts and crafts, schoolwork, working out or spending time with her boyfriend.

If Maju is in a group setting and her feelings of loneliness arise she steps away to spend time on her own to regroup. She also likes to read.

“I read a lot and I really enjoy it,” Maju said. “It’s my escape to stop feeling that way.”

Miranda loves to write and read poetry and she also loves to read because it calms her down and takes her to a different world.

According to Mind, a mental health charity in England and Wales, some ways people can manage loneliness are: 

  • Learn to be comfortable on their own;
  • Talk about their feelings of loneliness to people they know;
  • Be patient with themselves;
  • Make new connections;
  • Not compare themselves to others;
  • Take care of themselves;
  • Consider therapy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for people struggling with loneliness to start a conversation with others, connect with people on social media, volunteer, be kind to themselves and talk to a health care provider about how they are feeling.

To improve social connection the “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” advisory recommends people understand the importance of social connection, invest time in nurturing relationships, minimize distraction during conversations, be supportive, have diverse connections, participate in social and community groups, seek help by reaching out to a health care provider, family and friends, volunteers and much more.

The advisory also provides recommendations for what health care-workers, health care systems, schools, researchers, workplaces, parents, organizations and much more can do to help advance social connection.

Batanova said it is interesting to her how people always talk about what lonely people can do as if it were an individual problem when it is actually a social problem because it is a function of the way communities and society is designed. She said there has been more talk about improving social infrastructure like designing programs, policies and places that are conducive to strengthen connections. It is also important to provide education and campaigns.

She emphasized that it is not just about what lonely people can do, but what society and everyone as individuals can do as well.

“We all need to be intentional about maintaining our relationships especially for the ones who are not struggling,” Batanova said. “I think it’s kind of on us to do more so that the people who are struggling, don’t have to feel like yet again, they have to work hard at making themselves better.”

Samira Felix can be reached at samira.felix@laverne.edu.

Samira Felix, a junior journalism major with a concentration in print-online journalism, is news editor for the Campus Times. She previously served as a staff writer.

CommentCancel reply

Related articles

First generation college students overcome unique obstacles

As a first-generation college student and an only child, my decision to go to college was not just for myself but also for my family. 

Sex Workers: Stepping Out of the Shadows: Online sex work and stripping prove safer than prostitution

Online sex work is not only a safer option for the worker but for the consumers as well who can request specialized services from the comfort of their own home, diminishing the threat of violence, sex trafficking, drugs and STDs.

State schools stock Narcan, will La Verne follow suit?

The California Campus Opioid Safety Act requires public colleges and universities to offer educational and preventative information about opioid overdoses to students during orientation. And it requires campus health centers to distribute free dosages of the federally approved opioid overdose reversal medication Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan. 

Welcome President Mahdavi! Here is our wish list

To do our part in contributing to these positive changes, we have compiled a wish list to inform Mahdavi about some of the changes and improvements we believe are most important.
Exit mobile version