When we think of epidemics, we might have in mind widespread infectious diseases such as measles or polio. But the U.S. surgeon general says our nation is gripped by another epidemic, in the form of loneliness and isolation, which is having significant consequences to us as individuals and as a society.
Loneliness and isolation increase the risk for premature death by more than 25 percent—as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to the surgeon general’s advisory. Poor social connection is associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increase in risk of stroke and, in older adults, a 50 percent increase in developing dementia. It also adds to the risk of anxiety and depression.
What can we do to be less isolated and alone? We asked UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD.
“Loneliness is the antithesis of meaningful connection,” she says. “Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships.”
She shares her thoughts on how we can reconnect.
Start with self-reflection—are your current connections meaningful?
Even if you are in contact with people every day, you can be lonely and isolated.
“We can be so busy that we don’t realize how lonely we are,” Dr. Charguia says. “Our lives are full of connections—meeting after meeting, call after call. But that doesn’t mean it’s meaningful, where we are invested and present.”
If you realize that your daily interactions aren’t fulfilling, try to be more intentional, she says. Before jumping into a work meeting agenda, for example, check in with others in the room, whether it’s in person or virtually.
Consider how your life has changed since the pandemic.
Social isolation has been increasing for decades, the surgeon general’s advisory says. For example, polls show that social engagement with friends decreased 20 hours a month between 2003 and 2020.
The pandemic only made matters worse. When quarantines were mandated, many people stopped doing things with others, such as attending religious gatherings, going to sports events or having coffee with neighbors, Dr. Charguia says.
“We’ve developed some habits over the past few years that don’t offer the same connection as before,” she says. “Many of us haven’t taken steps to tap back into the quality of how we are connecting with one another.”
Take small steps to reconnect.
If you used to go out with friends, volunteer in your community or attend social events, consider trying to do some of those activities again. “We’ve gotten into a pattern of not getting up and going,” Dr. Charguia says.
That’s not to say you have to jump back into the same level of busyness. Some people enjoy having fewer structured activities to fill their days.
“It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of interactions,” she says. “A meaningful conversation with someone that lasts five minutes can be better than a distracted conversation that lasts 30 minutes. The important thing is having purposeful conversation.”
Realize screen time isn’t quality time.
Purposeful connections don’t happen when people are staring at their phones, she says. “You can be sitting in the same room and every person is on their own screen doing their own thing,” she adds. “That’s not meaningful interaction.”
The same goes for family movie nights, where all the attention is on the TV.
“Think of activities that allow for more direct interaction,” Dr. Charguia says, but don’t force it. Maybe part of the time it’s OK to be on screens or watch TV, but part of the time you’re encouraging communication with one another.
If you’ve called a social gathering of friends, for example, you could set the expectation with the group that everyone is going to limit screen use. If you’re a guest at a function, you could lead by example and put your phone away and try to connect with others in the moment.
Children who spend their days with their heads down looking through social media and group chats are especially susceptible.
“Kids might think social media is a way to connect, but it’s not real,” Dr. Charguia says. “Younger people may not have the awareness that social media is not meeting their needs of providing meaningful connections. They run the risk of becoming too involved in this platform, that it can then be overwhelming and not present a clear path of how to exit.”
To help their children develop deeper relationships, parents can model the behavior by limiting their own screen time and talking to their kids. “Even if your children may indicate that they are not willing or wanting to talk, they often can surprise us by just how much they are observing and listening,” she says. “We can actively work on being present in the same space as our children. A lot happens by just being there, listening ourselves and having greater awareness of what is going on around us.”
Commit to volunteering.
Volunteering to help an organization or support a cause can be one of the easiest ways to rebuild a sense of community.
“It’s the notion of giving back—the civil commitment of volunteering,” she says. “There’s a shared value in volunteering. You realize you have something to offer that helps someone else. It’s a tangible way of connecting with both self and community. It’s quite powerful to contemplate that impact.”
If you feel lonely or isolated, reach out for help. Talk to your doctor about how it might be affecting your physical and mental health. Need a doctor? Find one near you.