Identifying and combating loneliness

Feeling lonely is common among Service Members. It’s serious because it contributes to depression and it can reactivate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and negatively impact your health. Loneliness can happen anytime, even if you’re surrounded by family, fellow Service Members, or others, so it’s important to learn the warning signs. The good news is you can take steps to check in with yourself and actively connect with others.

What’s loneliness?

Loneliness can range from feeling left out to feeling empty, isolated, or insecure. It often occurs when you don’t feel like your need for social connection is being met. Nearly 30% of people report regularly feeling lonely, and about 25% of Veterans seeking mental health services say feeling isolated is their biggest concern. For deployed Service Members, levels of stress and supportiveness or conflicts among fellow unit members greatly impact their feelings of loneliness.

How serious is it?

  • Feeling alone is strongly associated with depression, and it’s one of the top 3 triggers linked to suicide attempts among Veterans.
  • Loneliness is a significant factor for worsening or reactivated PTSD symptoms in Veterans, even decades after their service. 
  • Feeling lonely for a long period of time is linked to aging faster, increased cardiovascular risk, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, sleep disturbance, and impaired cognitive performance.
  • If those around you feel lonely, it increases your chances of loneliness as well. Deployed military units with limited social contact might be particularly at risk. 

What can you do?

  • Make a one-on-one connection by talking about your day with a friend or relative. It’s not always easy, but if you can think of one positive thing that happened during your day and share it with someone else, you’ll reinforce your shared bond and combat that lonely feeling.
  • Increase your opportunity for social connections. Go out in public places, make virtual connections online or through social media, volunteer, or join an activity group. Put yourself in situations where you’re likely to interact with people who share your values and interests.
  • Be curious about others and focus on those around you. Conversations with others will help keep you in the moment, and they might express interest in your ideas and feelings.
  • Adopt a pet, if possible. Or try helping at an animal shelter or rescue group. Pets can provide important mental and social benefits. Owning a pet can lead to an increase in oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. For example, don’t just rely on your unit members for social plans. Build meaningful and lasting relationships with a variety of different groups such as your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Each can offer something different to enhance your life.
  • Practice mindfulness. It helps keep you present and avoid overthinking things because it often accompanies loneliness. Try a guided meditation exercise for a few minutes each day too.

Debrief

There might be times in your life when you feel isolated or all alone. Those feelings are common, so try to address them right away to avoid further distress or negative consequences to your physical and mental health. Connecting with people can help you find meaning in life, feel better, improve your mood, and stay focused. Try making plans to hang out with someone, reaching out to people you know, and getting involved in your community. Or connect with peer coaches and mental health professionals online at Vets Prevail.

Resources

Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Adler, A. B., Lester, P. B., McGurk, D., Thomas, J. L., & Chen, H. Y. (2016). The cultural context of loneliness: Risk factors in active duty soldiers. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(10), 865–882. doi:10.1521/jscp.2016.35.10.865

Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 977–991. doi:10.1037/a0016076

Kuwert, P., Knaevelsrud, C., & Pietrzak, R. H. (2014). Loneliness among older Veterans in the United States: Results from the national health and resilience in Veterans study. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 22(6), 564–569. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.02.013

Martin, J. C., & Hartley, S. L. (2017). Lonely, stressed, and depressed: The impact of isolation on U.S. Veterans. Military Behavioral Health, 1–9. doi:10.1080/21635781.2017.1333064

Masi, C. M., Chen, H.-Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219–266. doi:10.1177/1088868310377394