33% of People Over Age 45 Struggle with This Mental Health Problem


33% of people over age 45 struggle with this mental health problem.

Anxiety? Depression? Self-Esteem? Those would all be great guesses, but nope to all 3.

The answer is a little more unexpected. It is becoming an ever-greater issue with COVID beginning to take off in our area. It is loneliness.

Loneliness is a highly overlooked area in mental health.  Over 100 studies show that loneliness leads to a 50% increase in the risk of death.

Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad discussed her two meta-analyses (a statistical analysis used to examine a collection of studies) at the American Psychological Association’s 125th Annual Convention. Based on the strength of her results, Holt-Lunstad concluded that social connection is a basic human need.

And if you take a moment to think about it, her point has quite a bit of merit. Otherwise, we wouldn’t live in communities, find partners, and start families. Rather, we may be living in a very different world—perhaps a world in which we lived alone in the bush with a shotgun telling people to “move along” at the first sign of another human.

How is it that so many—33% of those over 45–are struggling with loneliness in society?

Holt-Lunstad points to two statistics that may help to understand the prevalence of loneliness — the U.S.: more than 25% of Americans live alone, and over 50% of the U.S. population is unmarried.

However, despite Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s use of U.S. statistics to help explain the prevalence of loneliness, her study used global data, suggesting that loneliness is a global problem. 


Take-Home Message

Loneliness is a significant mental health issue, and it can become more prevalent as we get older.

To ward off loneliness, we need social connection. And based on the scientific literature, we feel more socially connected when interacting in-person. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person socializing is significantly more challenging, which may account for why some people struggle to follow mandated physical distancing rules and limits on social gatherings.

It’s also apparent that feelings of loneliness have helped contribute to the growing mental health challenges that have emerged since the pandemic.

3 Tips To Battle Loneliness

As we enter the cold, dark days of winter, along with the increasing COVID-19 restrictions, it’s important to have a plan to combat loneliness for yourself and your loved ones.

Here are a few strategies to help you get through a COVID winter:


1. Change how you think about social situations

This might seem like a peculiar one to list first. Still, it’s significant for anyone uncomfortable in social situations.

In a meta-analysis of 50 studies, Masi and colleagues (2011) found that lonely people tend to expect social situations to go badly, which in turn, can cause social situations to go badly. And when this happens, they are more likely to avoid socializing. Unfortunately, the longer people avoid socializing, the more it reinforces that it’s uncomfortable to socialize, and feelings of loneliness are compounded. Clearly, to circumvent loneliness, this negative pattern needs to be interrupted.

Research by Masi and colleagues showed that an effective strategy is simply to change how you think about social situations (i.e., developing more positive expectations about social situations).

They found that adjusting expectations was a more effective technique in reducing loneliness than meeting new people, socializing more, or improving social skills.


2. Limit social media to 30 minutes per day

Pre-COVID, this would be challenging for some—but during COVID, it may seem particularly daunting. However, there’s some good science behind this suggestion.

In their 2018 study, Hunt et al. (2018) found that limiting social media to 30 minutes per day reduced feelings of depression and loneliness. Although the finding may seem counterintuitive, the researchers suggest that significantly reducing time spent on social media results in less social comparison.

Social comparison is the tendency to compare yourself with someone else. Typically, there is a tendency to draw comparisons in areas where we feel we don’t measure up. Although social comparisons don’t solely occur on social media, they can be particularly damaging in this context.

People typically present themselves in a very positive light on social media. Perfect faces and bodies shot from just the right angle and enhanced with filters, and perfect families living perfect lives, having the best times together! Excessive use of social media can result in people feeling bad about themselves, as they compare themselves with everyone else on social media, who appear to be happier and more accomplished. This, limiting social media use significantly reduces the time spent in these unfair social comparisons.

 


3. Use nostalgia

One effective way to combat loneliness if you are unable to socialize more is through nostalgia, which is the act of thinking back to better times.

Zhou and colleagues (2008) conducted four studies in which participants were asked to focus on feelings of loneliness and utilize nostalgia as a way to counteract these feelings. They found that nostalgia was an effective way to re-establish lost social connection, even though it was merely occurring in the mind.

The researchers also found that even if participants experienced some negative feelings when thinking about the past, the overall effect was positive in reducing feelings of loneliness. This suggests that you could think back to an enjoyable time with a loved one (positive feeling) and then think about how they have since passed away (negative feeling), and due to the net effect of nostalgia, you would be left with an overall positive feeling.

So, if you are unable to socialize as much as you would like to in the coming months, break out the old photo albums and reminisce—this could prove to be a great tool to ward off loneliness!

 


Are you surprised at how powerful loneliness can be?

What tips do you use to combat feelings of loneliness?

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Article by

Trevor Sullivan, MA, RP

Registered Psychotherapist

December 7, 2020