42% of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis, according to one 2017 survey. That same year Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy defined loneliness as an epidemic. A meta-analysis of studies on the emotion helps stoke those fears: Chronic loneliness can have the health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. After reading that report, I was officially in agreement with the league of terrified lonely millennials.
Loneliness feels different for everyone. It’s deeply personal. “Loneliness is a subjective feeling defined by the amount and type of connection you need in your life,” says Kyla Sokoll-Ward, a loneliness and connection expert. The social isolation and fear triggered by the pandemic definitely factor in heavily. But there’s a silver lining: “There’s something special happening with COVID-19,” says Sokoll-Ward. “There is less shame in loneliness because we are forced to be alone.” Still, in the midst of a global crisis, the fear of being alone can feel especially real. So we spoke with three experts on loneliness, community, and mental health to better understand the widespread fear of being alone and how to deal with it (even during a pandemic). Why am I afraid to be alone? Humans crave closeness and in times like these, it can be hard to find enough of it. According to a 2019 survey by health insurer Cigna, 61% of people feel lonely from “not enough social support, too few meaningful social interactions, poor physical and mental health, and not enough balance in our lives.” TLDR: Most of us are lonely for a lot of valid reasons. The origins of loneliness run deep. “From prehistoric times, in the earliest civilizations, loneliness was a biological prompt to get back with a tribe, where you’d have protection,” says Ben Pleat, the founder of Cobu, a community-building platform. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that the word loneliness first emerged. “Before, it was just described as solitude,” Sokoll-Ward says. “Boredom and loneliness were considered things only the bourgeoisie would experience because working class people were always busy.” Somewhere along the road, the view shifted: “Since then we’ve conflated solitude and loneliness: when we are alone, we are lonely,” Sokoll-Ward says.
In that sense, we’ve come to create a society where our widespread fear is also our lived reality what’s up, quarantine?) are obvious but, as Sokoll-Ward points out, “Now we also know we can feel lonely in a crowd of people.” The same goes for romantic relationships. Rates of loneliness are just as high if you are partnered 60% of married people express regularly feeling lonely. So much for my dreams of finding a Quarantine QT to shelter in place with if there’s a second wave in the fall.
The fear of being alone certainly isn’t helped by decades of media portrayals of single women. “TV shows that we see, books that we read there are relatively few narratives that celebrate a character who is alone by choice,” says Alyssa Petersel, founder of MyWellbeing, a mental health site built to help match therapists and clients. “Around family-starting, there are very few examples of someone choosing to be on their own, particularly women, not shown without remorse or regret.” Think of the archetype of the curmudgeonly old great-aunt: We’re shown that being alone is never a choice, but rather is unfortunate, depressing, shameful, or pitiable.
Loneliness is a vicious cycle when you’re lonely, you feel isolated, which only makes you feel more alone. “By its nature, loneliness tells us that there must be something wrong with us and no one else feels this way,” Sokoll-Ward says. “I want to reframe how people see loneliness as a natural emotion that most of us feel as a part of how we work on it together.”
How to deal with being alone “The more we choose not to look at loneliness, the more it is going to take over our minds and block us from being ourselves,” says Sokoll-Ward. Here are six ways to deal with your fear of being alone.
Make time alone be quality time with yourself. I am naturally a nonstop thinker, so meditation has always been hard for me (so it’s probably the mental medicine I may need the most). Sokoll-Ward has been meditating daily for five years, having started with just three minutes a day. She framed the challenging practice well: “If I come out of this 1% more in touch with myself for the day, or even the 5 minutes afterwards, that’s great.”
Headspace offers an accessible 10-part audio course called Reframing Loneliness that’s offered in 10-minute sessions on your own schedule. The teacher’s soothing British accent alone makes listening worth it, and subscriptions are currently free for the unemployed. Insight Timer also offers free meditations that Petersel recommends: “Just listen to the meditation, and don’t talk about it or force it. It’s been really helpful for me when I’m feeling particularly anxious,” she says.
Find joy. “Think about when you were really young: What brought you joy?” Petersel asks. “As we grow up, the good visceral emotional experience gets muddled with productivity: Exercise feels good, but also helps us in health and to look a certain way.” To combat a feeling of loneliness, forget productivity and try to focus on doing something that just simply makes you happy like coloring or baking. “The activities may feel childish, but they can spark aspects of joy we’ve lost touch with,” Petersel says.
Be a good neighbor. Stay-at-home orders may actually help us build the Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhoods of yesteryear. Be on the lookout for ways to help, like signing up for a Mutual Aid Network or posting on a community bulletin board or listserv. If you’re feeling more creative and open, you can slip your neighbors a note with your contact info or unit number. Introduce yourself, let them know some of your interests. Maybe ask them if they’re interested in a loaf of your home-baked sourdough or ask if they could use a hand getting groceries. Doing an act of kindness can be uplifting and may lead to deeper connections.
Phone a friend. When you’re feeling lonely, ask for a happy-hour catch-up. “The stigma of calling someone and feeling needy is usually false it’s likely that the person you’re calling on will appreciate being wanted and will also get a dopamine release from supporting you,” says Pleat. Still hesitant to reach out? “The way we frame reaching out to others is important. When we reach out with ‘What’re you up to?’ the conversation often falls flat,” says Sokoll-Ward. Take an empathetic, upfront, and tactical approach to making asks of friends’ time: “Try something like, ‘I’m having a hard day and I’d love to talk to you. I know we’re all under-resourced if you have 30 minutes to chat, I would so appreciate a check-in!’ That gives your friend so much more to go off of.”
Talk to a stranger. Opening up to someone outside your network can lower the barrier to vulnerability. Luckily, apps are popping up to help us out during this period of social isolation. With DialUp or Wakie, you can be paired with an anonymous partner somewhere in the world to have a chat on a shared interest. (Fellow cat lovers? Obsessed with Normal People? K-pop fans?)
Sometimes you just need someone to listen. Listenly offers trained listeners on demand to help you “process whatever is going on in your life with an empathetic listening partner.” The company is offering free sessions to health care workers and others affected by COVID-19.
Talk to a professional. Professional therapy options exist for all budgets, schedules, and communication styles and can be incredibly rewarding when you find the right fit. “Anticipate and allocate some research time to learning about therapist options, so it doesn’t feel like friction in your path, but rather is the start of your process of accepting and working on your loneliness and fears,” says Petersel. MyWellbeing matches you to a good-fit therapist for your style and preferences; providers start at $100 per session, with some therapists offering sessions as low as $60. TalkSpace offers plans starting at $65 per week, but during this time they’re also offering a slate of free mental health resources.
Investigate free or low-fee resources in your community, like local training institutes that offer copay-level therapy from therapists clocking clinical hours. For more immediate support, Crisis Text Line is here to help you trained supporters are standing by via text at 741741 to chat with you about your loneliness.