The Loneliness Epidemic: How To Recognize And Fight It

As we go into December, most of our thoughts and energy are focused on the upcoming Christmas holiday, shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping gifts, planning travel and special dinners and parties.  While it is certainly a festive time of year, it is also notorious for long winter months (at least for many of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and also a season of remembrance and reflection.  After all, the long months of dark and cold often inspire seasonal depression and is a challenge for many people.

One of the side effects of the celebration of the holidays combined with the onset of winter is often a feeling of loneliness.  The remembering of past holidays brings memories of times past with family members and friends, and while some these memories will leave us feeling happy and content, others may have the opposite effect, bringing us back to the edge of sadness or grief, or longing for a chance to step back in time.  Loneliness is a strong emotion and can taint our thoughts with its overwhelming presence.  

A sneaky feeling

Loneliness does not discriminate.  It affects young and old, men and women, singles or attached.  It doesn’t care about your religious beliefs, political affiliation, or even the number of followers on your social media profiles.  Loneliness is an equalizer – everyone experiences it at one time or another in their lives and sometimes for extended periods, such as after the death of a loved one.

Loneliness is a lurker, hiding just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.  It’s sneaky and thrives on surprise visits.  It knows no bounds, leaving many clinging to the edge, overcome with the friends loneliness brings along – grief, sadness, depression.

For each person there are different triggers to loneliness.  Perhaps the time of year a loved one died or driving by the park where so many hours were spent with children, the smell of a certain fragrance or the sound of a beloved song from earlier times.  Like all emotions, loneliness is an opportunist, waiting for that split second it can show itself and does what it does best – steal joy.

Happy {Hurting} Holidays

The holidays are pure gold for loneliness.  People are emotionally taught, for better or worse, and this makes it even easier for loneliness to swoop in and get settled.  The season from Thanksgiving to Christmas is traditionally fueled by hope, love, and peace.  It’s a time for families and friends to spend time together, and a time to remember the past moments and look forward to the future new year.

While the holiday season is notorious for hope and peace, loneliness can set in and mask these good feelings with sadness and despair, completely the opposite of what we expect to feel during this season.

Many people struggle with loneliness during the holidays.  It may be obvious; perhaps the elderly woman across the street recently lost her husband, so it’s understandable she will feel loneliness at this time.  But oftentimes it is more subtle.

Finding those who need help

Think of a time you felt lonely when everything in life was going along fine.  Remember, loneliness just waits for a moment of opportunity.  We all have experiences archived in our memories, even back to childhood, of feeling lonely and desiring a connection with another person.  Children struggle with this at home, school, and church, and adults struggle with this, too.  

Is there a child you see at school or church who often spends time isolated from others?  Do you know a friend who is lonely in her marriage?  (This doesn’t seem like a situation where loneliness can rear its ugly head, but it happens so often, and is kept so quiet the rest of the world doesn’t even know.)  

But how can loneliness exist in such a connected world?

It’s strange, isn’t it, that we can live in times of never-ending contact with people across the entire world, yet in our own mind, heart, and body feel completely alone?  Even with family and friends nearby, even in the same home.  Even with coworkers we may see several days a week for hours on end.  Even with Jesus in our heart.

Yes, even if you’re a Christian and believe fully that God’s spirit is within you and know to  your core that you’re never really alone, loneliness can still set in.  After all, it’s just an emotion, and we’re all just human, trying to make it through this gift of life the best we can.

The Bible tells us in John 10:10

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (NIV)”

The enemy lives to bring us to a state of misery and despair, hence the saying “misery loves company.”  Loneliness is but one facet of darkness.  Loneliness is a thief.  It takes joy and leaves a wake of soul-draining feelings in its path.  

But did you catch the second part of the scripture?  Jesus came to give us life, eternal life, and we are to have it to the full.  What does “full” encompass?  It means a joyful, peaceful, abundant life, overflowing with all the good things God’s Word promises.  It’s not settling for suffering from the likes of loneliness!

 How can we recognize loneliness?

People suffering with loneliness are all around us.  We just need to learn the signs so we can recognize it and draw on our empathy to understand and compassion to help.  Unfortunately, there is not one set of clear symptoms or signs of loneliness, as all people process emotions differently.  Often loneliness and depression are so closely intertwined they cannot be separated, so signs of depression are sometimes an indicator.

Some common actions associated with loneliness are social isolation, such as not being as active on social media as previously and less real-life interaction, like skipping activities with others or turning down invitations.  Again, even though we live in a very connected society with constant social media availability, this doesn’t protect us from feelings of loneliness and a deeper connection with others, including someone who has passed away or is not longer in our life.

I really think the best way to recognize loneliness is to simply be invested in the welfare of others, and even the world at large, in such a way that our inner whisper tells us when someone needs an extra moment of our time and attention.  Prayer also enables and strengthens the ability to just know who needs our help and when is the right time to offer.

What if I’m the one who is lonely?

If you’re the one suffering with loneliness, I encourage you to do just one small action to counteract this feeling.  You don’t have to make big life changes here, but any movement in the direction of easing this pain will help bring you peace and relief.  

As a Christian, I believe our first defense against an attack like this is prayer – prayer for peace, strength, joy, whatever you need to help you past this emotional attack.  The second thing I suggest is giving yourself grace.  We’re not perfect, this world isn’t perfect, and strong emotions are going to threaten to overwhelm us at times.  Just love yourself and be patient with yourself.

The next small action is to interact with other people.  If you have close family or friends, accept an invitation or initiate your own invitation for an activity that brings you feelings of joy – meeting for coffee, a walk in the park, or just a visit in your home.  

If you don’t have family or friends nearby, then you’ll have to do the really hard business of making a new friend.  I know, this is really hard for me, and the older I get, the harder it seems.  But I also know it really is possible.  We’re not talking total life-changing actions, but miniscule steps that will lead you out of darkness.

Think about your interests or hobbies.  Is there a group of like-minded people who meet and discuss the very things you like?  If you like reading, see if the local library hosts a book club.  If you like to knit, see if a local yarn or craft store has a drop-in night to work on projects together.  Even getting yourself out of your normal routine for something as simple as going to a different park for your walk or browsing a bookstore you never go in will help banish feelings of isolation and loneliness.

And of course there’s always the always available social media and Internet.  While it’s true we can be lonely and still have active social media profiles, this doesn’t have to be the case.  We can use social media as a useful tool to help us interact and form a connection with others.  

We can follow family members and friends as they post details of their lives and interact with them via social media, sharing comments and celebrating with them.  We can use email to write long letters or short notes to keep up with the details of others and to share our lives, no matter how boring we think our own life may be.  We can use live video or instant messaging, via social platforms or cell phones, to have instant contact with loved ones.  We can even join groups related to our hobbies and interests!  (Search Facebook for your favorite hobby, and you’ll be amazed how many groups are out there.  You can even start your own!)

Whatever small action you decide to take in finding good people to surround yourself with and invest your love in will be worth it.

How can I help others?

We all know someone at some time or another who will deal with the heavy baggage of loneliness.  While we can’t fight anyone else’s battle for them, we can certainly help strengthen them and stand by them through the hard times.

Even tiny efforts can make a big difference.  Taking a few extra moments to check in on a friend, family member, or neighbor when you know (or even just suspect) they are lonely will be appreciated.  Continuing to make the effort to include them, even when they do not accept, will be appreciated.  Not giving up on them and offering them grace sufficient for their current state will be appreciated.

God can turn our smallest gifts into huge blessings.  Although an action may seem insignificant to you, any help offered through love will always be a gift to those on the receiving end.  Loneliness is a dark time and often a long battle filled with hopelessness.  Offering a ray of hope to someone in this situation is enough.

This holiday season, I encourage you to seek out those who need your special ray of hope.  

We may not be able to be everything to everyone, but we can be something to someone.We may not be able to be everything to everyone, but we can be something to someone. Click To Tweet

If you’d like to share your experience with loneliness or what worked for you, please comment below and help others!

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