A new study by Cigna showed that nearly half of Americans reported that they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. When releasing this report, Douglas Nemecek, M.D., Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, declared that the problem of loneliness has reached “epidemic” proportions, saying, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

The medical impact of loneliness is no joke. Research has shown that loneliness and isolation can lead to higher levels of heart disease and stroke, immune system problems, depression, dementia, and premature death, and even slow recovery from serious illnesses such as cancer.

Additionally, studies on happiness consistently find that the happiest people are those with the most satisfying social connections, and worldwide happiness studies indicate that the happiest countries are those that emphasize community, social support, and respect for fellow citizens. (FYI, Finland ranked #1 this year, the United States came in at #18.)

Interestingly, the group we would probably expect to be the most social, ages 18 to 27, reported the highest levels of loneliness, and report being in worse health than older generations in Cigna’s survey. These young adults are active social media users, but as for social reality, maybe not so much.

Yes, social media connects us like never before, yet many report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. It’s a phenomenon referred to as “the social media paradox.” The parallel in the rise of social media and the rise of loneliness levels is likely not coincidental. Though social media literally connects us with more people, the content of that connection can be so unbalanced to promote “positive” experiences that people can feel very alone if they aren’t sporting the same look, participating in similar events/social gatherings/vacations, or earning the number of “likes,” awards and achievements that their friends are. On the other hand, the “comments” sections on social media can be so filled with negativity that making connections there can actually be emotionally abusive.

But it’s not just the rise of social media that is hurting our social connections. Other things contributing to loneliness include work demands, improper sleep schedules, limited quality time with family and friends, and even a lack of “me time.” As usual, getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthy, and balancing work/home life is critical here.

Many of us may wonder why we feel lonely when we spend our time surrounded by family and fill our days and nights activities. We may even have trouble identifying our malaise as “loneliness” given our full schedules. But loneliness isn’t always about being alone, it’s about feeling alone. And even the busiest spouse, parent, friend, adult, child, senior, teenager … can feel alone, even in a crowd.

Loneliness is not just an American problem. Across the globe, countries are starting to consider how to help combat loneliness in their citizens. In January, Britain’s prime minister even appointed a “Minister for Loneliness” in response to a 2017 study that reported more than 9 million British citizens “often” or “always” feel lonely. (For reference, Britain ranked below the U.S. at #19 in the World Happiness Ranking.) They are also working to establish a method to measure loneliness and set up a fund for government and charities to develop a wider strategy to address the problem.

In October 2017, Canadian designer Marissa Korda put out a request for anonymous stories of loneliness and soon received over 1,400 submissions from over 60 countries. With these, she launched an online platform called The Loneliness Project (thelonelinessproject.org) to help people recognize that loneliness is a normal experience, and to offer resources to find help.

Korda is familiar with the research citing health concerns and calling loneliness an “epidemic” but she cautions that the goal of her project is not to convey a need to “cure” loneliness, but to normalize it as part of the human experience so people can move through those periods of their lives without shame, ask for help if needed, learn to identify what is lacking in our social interactions, and pursue more fulfilling social interactions with hope.

If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, there are many steps you can take to help, and building face-to-face connections may be the best. Connect with friends for a cup of coffee, volunteer, take a new job, join a support group, participate in local activities/interests/classes. Darien alone has so many activities through the Darien Library, YWCA, Darien Parks & Recreation, the Darien Senior Center, etc.

Most of all, don’t be afraid to reach out. Chances are you will help others while you are helping yourself, and that may be the key to it all.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT, welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at themomfront@optonline.net.