The Difference Between Loneliness and Being Alone

Even before the pandemic, loneliness was an epidemic, with studies indicating that one in five Canadians identified as lonely. Here, experts share how to cope with loneliness.

“I’d never go out to eat by myself,” I overheard a man tell his date over dinner at a buzzy restaurant in Manhattan. I was sitting at the bar, picking at a salad, eavesdropping on the couple. “On work trips, I just grab takeout and go back to the hotel,” the man continued.

I pulled my breadbasket close, took my pick of the piece with the best inner-to-crust ratio and wondered, What’s the problem with eating alone in public? I couldn’t imagine forfeiting the chance to try a new restaurant in a new city in favour of filling up a to-go container at the hot ‘n ready section of Whole Foods and plopping in front of a television. But maybe that’s just because I love being alone—or, at least, I used to.

I’ve learned, courtesy of the pandemic, that being alone tastes best when offered à la carte. It needs to be an item you can choose—not one you’re helplessly served. Once the chance to have meaningful interactions is taken away, being alone can morph into loneliness—a state of sorrow that is said to be as harmful to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But experts say you don’t have to be alone to become lonely. “Loneliness is very complex,” says Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “It has to do with a feeling and experience, and it’s not dependent on an amount of social contact.”

Loneliness and the Pandemic

Before the first lockdown, I’d periodically travel to various major cities for work and tag on extra days to explore each place on my own. When my long-distance boyfriend and I would plan trips, I’d head over a day or two early to enjoy the city solo, checking out must-see spots to revisit (or skip) with him. Berlin, Reykjavik, Paris—I can tell you how to spend the most marvellous 24 hours alone there and never feel lonely. So, when the pandemic hit and I was by myself in my tiny Toronto apartment, I thought, I got this. All I had to do was keep busy.

I did all the things that are proven to promote a positive mindset. I established a routine that included an early bedtime and early morning alarm. I got ready every day, complete with a spritz of Chloé Eau de Parfum. I read a book a week. I exercised twice a day and logged my 10,000 steps outside, snow or hail. I spent hours on the phone with my favourite people. I ate lots of vegetables and little to no packaged foods. I started taking online French lessons.

After a few months, there was a shift. I began finding it difficult to absorb the words in my books. My daily walks felt like a chore. I lost my appetite and ran out of conversation topics. My French was going well, but only because my lunchtime lesson with my tutor had become a reprieve from a morning spent smothered by ruminating thoughts about not sharing memories with anyone, not making memories with anyone, not getting closer to my goals, not having a purpose. I felt heavy, suffocated by the thought that time was running away from me and I was fastened to the same place. I’m lucky, I told myself. So many people have it so much worse, I repeated. But nothing I tried prevented the spells of self-pity.

It’s because I’m alone, I assumed. But it turns out, singles aren’t the only people feeling lonely during the pandemic. According to a July 2021 CAMH survey, about a quarter of people living in households with children reported feeling lonely. “You can be surrounded by a lot of people and still feel lonely,” says Kamkar.

Who Loneliness Affects

Loneliness happens when we don’t feel heard, understood or have a sense of belonging. Kate Mulligan, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, points to adults with kids under 18 navigating home-schooling last year: “They may feel impacted by the isolation and loneliness of raising kids without their village, and that their needs aren’t being prioritized by governments or decision-makers.” This type of experience is called epistemic injustice, which occurs when a person’s views and experiences in the world aren’t valued. “There’s that sort of existential loneliness of, ‘Why is what I’ve been doing not part of the broader conversation?’” says Mulligan.

Epistemic injustice hits marginalized communities hardest. “If you’re Black, if you’re LGBTQ2+, if you’re Indigenous, you’re more likely to experience feelings of loneliness,” says Mulligan. This is often because there’s not enough being done to effectively address the systemic issues marginalized people face.

Alia Chan, a psychotherapist at Avery Therapy Centre in Vancouver, says she experienced this type of loneliness during a recent rise in anti-Asian hate, particularly in early 2021. To help herself and others in the Asian community, Chan led a free six-week therapy facilitation group. “There was an authenticity behind it,” she says. “People were sharing their traumas, they were feeling seen and were in a safe space.” Feelings of loneliness won’t dissipate until there’s justice for the collective, but support from others can help, says Chan.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Even before COVID came along, there was a loneliness epidemic, with studies indicating that one in five Canadians identified as lonely. It’s an issue worldwide, too. In 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a minister for loneliness after noting the rates of loneliness had doubled since the 1980s. While technology has kept us more connected, we have fewer face-to-face interactions, which are much more meaningful. Japan recently followed the U.K.’s lead, appointing a minister for loneliness in February 2021. It’s a serious issue—long-term loneliness is associated with a host of physical health problems, including an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia, and a range of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and suicide.

How to Cope With Loneliness

Kamkar says treating loneliness starts with self-awareness, reflection about our value system and asking ourselves: Why am I feeling this way? Is it because I’m not surrounded by others or that my needs aren’t being met? Talking to a health care professional can be useful, she says, as mental health experts can help you recognize your feelings and form a treatment plan.

In most cases, Kamkar explains that treating loneliness includes social prescribing, which is when doctors recommend health-promoting activities to patients. For many people, social prescribing is the only treatment for loneliness they need, says Mulligan. Whether someone is living alone or with a family, needing human interaction or to feel heard, these activities can help build a support network that makes an individual feel accepted—while also stimulating happy hormones. Certain activities, like playing a sport or taking an art class, naturally boost serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. “Sometimes we forget that we have that as a resource,” says Chan.

But I had already “prescribed” myself physical, playful and educational activities—so how come I wasn’t seeing the benefits? According to Mulligan, it’s because my activities didn’t support my mental health in the optimal way. “You need to feel a sense of autonomy to feel like you have choice in what’s happening in your life, mastery to feel you’re in control, belonging to feel seen in your community and beneficence to feel good about giving back,” says Mulligan.

Based on those four categories, I realized what was missing from my life was a sense of belonging and beneficence. My day job had gone remote, my night job had succumbed to lockdown, my barre studio had closed and I was tethered to my Toronto neighbourhood—I lost all the ways I used to connect and bond with others. My current situation wasn’t working, so I knew I had to make a change in order to feel happy again and not sink into another bout of loneliness.

Nothing Changes Without Changes

As soon as it was safe to do so, I gave my landlord my notice. After eight years living on my own, I pushed my furniture, piece by piece, into the hallway, waited for some stranger on Facebook Marketplace to pick it up, and I left.

With no permanent address, I split my time with loved ones. I spent time with my parents, comforted by the feeling of being doted on. I visited friends, soaking up old memories and meeting their pandemic babies. I reunited with my boyfriend, discussing plans for our future. I dropped in on my sister, helping her care for her little ones while my brother-in-law was out of town. The truth is, while being alone doesn’t cause loneliness, not being alone can certainly help treat it. “Emotions go through a cycle,” says Chan. “You need to feel it to heal it.”

Next: 10 Ways to Enrich Your Life and Beat Loneliness

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada