The Epidemic of Loneliness

Apparently, loneliness is now considered an “epidemic” — at least in the news and in scientific reports. So this state is on my mind — but let me make it very clear that I am not lonely. No, in fact just the opposite. My life is blessed with friends and family, and there are days I feel I’m running just to keep up with their comings and goings — nurturing our relationships as we move thorough our lives together. At least on FaceTime, if we’re separated by distance.

But nevertheless, the word is out that in our culture, loneliness is rampant. For example, an article by Eleanor Cummins and Andrew Zaleski titled “If Loneliness is an Epidemic, How Do We Treat It?” appeared on the Opinion page of the Sunday, July 16th edition of The New York Times. So let me offer you a flavor of that piece before zeroing in on a couple of important points that I think should be made. (See lead photo.)

Cummins and Zaleski do a pretty good job of reviewing a wide range of scientific literature on the prevalence of loneliness, its biological underpinnings and treatment. So first the statistics: “More than one-fifth of Americans over 18 say they often or always feel lonely or socially isolated. Among older adults, social isolation has been linked to various adverse physical and psychological effects.” These include heart disease and dementia. Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., Surgeon General of the United States, has said that “addressing the crisis of loneliness and isolation is one of our generation’s greatest challenges” while also labeling loneliness as an national epidemic.

In their review, Cummins and Zaleski cite evidence of serious neurological effects in the brains of lonely people. They report:

Research has shown that a lonely brain is transformed. Neurotransmitters important for bonding and social connection go haywire. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, responsible for modulating stress, is hyperactive. The amygdala, which triggers our fight-or-flight response and helps process emotional reaction, is in overdrive. ... Previous studies have found that lonely people detect negative or threatening stimuli ... faster than others — which might explain not only the sadness that accompanies loneliness but also the palpable sense of danger ...

The authors conclude with some positive notes, emphasizing the fact that the brain can actually “snap back” and rewire itself with psychological and behavioral interventions that have been tested. So let me turn to some of these that not only have proved effective, but also which I have used to treat isolated individuals in my own clinical practice in Pittsburgh.

First, however, let me also raise an issue that I think really needs to be addressed briefly. Someone recently reminded me that loneliness and solitude are two distinct experiences: the first being the “pain of being alone,” and the second, the “glory of being alone.” As pointed out in a Letter to the Editor in the July 30 issue of the Times, not everyone who is alone feels lonely, and folks can still feel lonely in the company of others. Being comfortable with solitude means being comfortable with oneself. While not everyone’s cup of tea, it's a wonderful practice for those who are comfortable with solitude. (See Doris Grumbach’s Fifty Days of Solitude, Beacon Press, 1994. See my second photo below.) A friend sent me that book with the inscription, “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

Getting back to Cummins and Zaleski, they end their piece emphasizing that “the most important source of change are the lonely people themselves. They write:

Whatever the root source of loneliness, given what we know about the brain’s capacity to rewire itself, coaching social interaction through mindfulness therapy or cognitive interventions can make up elements of a clinical response. ... Lonely people could take steps to pull themselves out of it. This may involve forcing themselves to connect — even when they don’t feel like it ... spending 15 minutes each day to reach out to people we care about, introducing ourselves to our neighbors, ... seeking opportunities to serve others, recognizing that helping people is one of the most powerful antidotes to loneliness.

Cummins and Zaleski end their piece by quoting one of the major researchers on loneliness, Stephanie Cacioppo, who is now promoting the acronym GRACE, standing for “gratitude, reciprocity, altruism, choice and enjoyment.” The point: Being grateful, giving back as well as taking, living for others as well as yourself, making choices to climb out of isolation, and enjoying your life fully — all can lead to a fuller, flourishing life.

A second Letter to the Editor in the July 30 Times points out how odd it is that the Cummins and Zaleski piece never mentions religious affiliation. The letter reads, “[T]he authors missed interviewing anyone who could recommend going to where true GRACE ... may be found. Sacred community is not just a treatment but a salient antidote to loneliness.” I also have made this point in the books I have written, citing research that has concluded that attending a church community is “brain soothing” — feeling welcome and that you belong, as well as being offered opportunities to serve others, express gratitude and enjoy the rhythm of music, chanting and prayer. For many, the letter reads, sacred community is the source of true GRACE and comfort in good times and bad.

Food for thought. And blessings on all.


Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.