What kind of lonely are you? Why it matters and what you can do about it.
Updated: Mar 24
The pandemic has triggered an epidemic of loneliness.
We’ve all experienced it to some extent. And given the way pandemics are brought to heel – stay home, stay away from people – loneliness was bound to be a problem. And for many of us it’s been a real punch in the gut: relentless, pernicious, and crushing.
Much has been written about loneliness during the pandemic and I’ve little to add to the mass chorus of “I’m lonely” except to say we’re not all experiencing loneliness in the same way.
And understanding the distinctions between types of loneliness may help us to better understand ourselves. And to find some remedies that work best for the kind(s) of loneliness we’re experiencing as individuals, not as some amorphous mass of global loneliness.
According to mental health professionals there are at least three kinds of loneliness: Social, emotional, and existential.
So let’s break it down:
Social Loneliness – This type of loneliness has really surged during the pandemic, thanks to the initial (and in some cases recurring) lockdown and cancellation of most social activities. People who thrive on regular interaction with others, even strangers, have been hit the hardest by this kind of loneliness. In addition to missing contact with other humans, many people are questioning their purpose in the solitary or severely restricted lives we’ve all been living.
Emotional Loneliness – This loneliness stems from a desire to form deep and meaningful connections with other people based on understanding and acceptance. Having one or more person in our lives with whom we can share our deepest thoughts, struggles, and hopes, without fear of rejection or judgment, is key to protecting us from emotional loneliness. We most often find this kind of connection with a life partner, close friends, mentor, spiritual director, and/or relative. And while maintaining contact of some kind with the people who matter most to us, covid restrictions have made face-to-face contact difficult, resulting in what people are describing as a diminished sense of intimacy.
Existential Loneliness – This is the kind of loneliness we experience when we come to terms with the reality that there are certain life experiences beyond our control which we’ll face alone. Even having people by our side as we journey through illness or grief or disappointment or death doesn’t change the fact we’re fundamentally alone in our experience. The pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront of many people’s minds, resulting in a sense of malaise that’s difficult to describe or even acknowledge.
Depending on the situation, it’s not unusual to experience more than one type of loneliness. And over the past year, when absolutely everything has been disrupted in ways none of us have ever experienced, it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced every type of loneliness at various times.
For example, in recent months I’ve definitely experienced bouts of social loneliness which, as an introvert, is unusual for me. But the total deprivation of social interaction during lockdown triggered in me an uncharacteristic need to interact with the outside world. And I subsequently became quite gregarious in my interactions with shelf stackers at the grocery store and UPS people who dropped packages off at my door.
Similarly, people who hadn’t previously spent much time wrestling with issues of existential loneliness may have found themselves struggling with the realization that being around other people doesn’t necessarily shield us from profound feelings of helplessness, fear, and isolation.
So what can we do about the kind of loneliness we experience - both now and beyond the pandemic?
Here are some suggestions:
Social Loneliness –
Maintain your social life through technology. Organize Zoom gatherings so you can see and hear each other. Plan outdoor gatherings (where allowed) that create adequate space between people while still allowing for interaction.
Volunteer. Connecting with other people through altruism helps to combat social loneliness on two fronts: You’ll meet new people and take your mind off what you’re missing. Even if you’re alone at home, sewing masks to donate, the act of doing something useful and purposeful can relieve the sense of isolation.
Make peace with aloneness. While a fundamental human instinct, the need to socialize can prevent us from exploring our inner lives. Eventually life will return to [somewhat] normal. In the meantime, let’s give ourselves permission to lean into our less hectic social lives and discover important things about ourselves we may have missed or failed to appreciate. Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely.
Emotional Loneliness –
Use this time to broaden your network of emotional support so that going forward you’re less dependent on only one or two connections. Get curious about the people in your life who meet your emotional needs in ways you hadn’t previously considered.
Tap into your faith as a way of deepening your emotional well-being. Explore the idea of developing greater intimacy with God.
If your emotional loneliness is the result of a loss, reach out for help. Many churches offer grief and loss support groups (don’t worry if it isn’t your church – get the help being offered). Support groups also exist online or through local therapists/hospitals.
Connect more deeply with yourself. Having people in your life who support you emotionally is vitally important; however, so is having that kind of connection with yourself. Take time to journal about your feelings, spend time alone in nature, listen to music. Be creative. Try a healthy new recipe. Write yourself a love letter. All of these activities can help to strengthen the emotional bond you have with yourself.
Existential Loneliness –
Practice talking back to fearful thoughts. A lot of existential loneliness is rooted in fear. Thoughts of “What would I do if anything happened to my husband?” or “What if I can’t travel to see my family this year?” fuel the feeling of loneliness before anything bad has actually happened. Educate yourself with reliable facts, write them down, and refer to them often as a way to turn down the dial on fearful rumination.
Engage in practices that shift your focus from generalized fear and isolation to peace and connection in the present moment – for example: meditation, yoga, walking in nature, cooking a healthy meal, being creative, listening to music, writing in a journal, connecting with a good friend. Try several and find what works best for you.
Support your desire to resolve existential loneliness through healthy religious beliefs and practices – for example: reflect on what your faith teaches about living with uncertainty, the presence of God during times of distress, the afterlife, etc.
Recognize that a chronic problem with existential loneliness may indicate an underlying mental health issue and require professional help.
In closing, if you're looking for support in understanding and managing your loneliness through new habits and practices, I can help. Please contact me to learn about options for working together.