Research Supports Value of Meditation for Coping with Loneliness
Can you meditate your way out of loneliness? Maybe, says a new analysis of dozens of studies that tested different strategies for reducing loneliness. Doing so could help reduce the physical and psychiatric health problems linked to loneliness and isolation.
Learn to meditate or take your practice to the next level with our weekly Wellness Through Meditation workshop, every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Register here.
People all over the world are facing an epidemic of loneliness, and Covid is only partially to blame. As with so many systemic issues in contemporary society, Covid has exacerbated and illuminated a problem that existed long before the spike-covered coronavirus crashed into our lives like a wrecking ball. While Covid has forced most of us into a degree of isolation, loneliness is not new to the human condition. In a world teeming with people and sophisticated technology designed to make connecting easier, it’s a remarkably common experience.
Pandemic restrictions on gathering and distancing have undoubtedly heightened social isolation. But it turns out that isolation and loneliness don’t always go hand in hand. Most of us have experienced a situation where we are physically alone and quite content to be so. And many of us can also remember a time when we felt lonely and isolated even though we were surrounded by people. It’s this latter kind of distressing alone-ness that can lead to serious health problems and even premature death.
Loneliness and Social Isolation Not the Same
When studying the health impacts of loneliness and isolation, researchers clearly distinguish the two. Isolation is an objective measure of the quantity and quality of one’s social connections. Loneliness is more subjective. It describes the negative emotions we experience when we feel isolated—which can happen when we are in solitude as well as when we aren’t. The difference is more than semantics. It suggests two different strategies for combating social isolation and loneliness. It’s true that having fewer social connections can increase the risk for loneliness, but it is also true that increasing one’s social connections isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem of feeling lonely. It might, but it’s no guarantee, because one can be socially “connected” and still feel lonely.
But what if you could ease the very real pain of feeling lonely and isolated at any moment, whether you’re at home alone or alone in a crowd? What if the subjective experience of loneliness could be controlled, wielded into something less distressing, something quite neutral even, simply by getting still and mindfully connecting to our inner self? By allowing emotions to arise and attending to them without judgment?
Join COVID Support VT Counselor Nate Reit for a 10-minute “Monday Meditation” on Facebook Live every Monday at 1 p.m., starting Jan. 10 (except Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 17). Follow COVID Support VT on Facebook and sign up for video notifications, or RSVP to the event.
Research Affirms Value of Meditation
A systematic review of 58 research studies recently published suggests meditation may be the key to coping with loneliness. The authors examined the effectiveness of a wide range of interventions compatible with Covid distancing requirements. Among dozens of therapeutic strategies reviewed, the most effective were psychological therapies – in particular, mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness-based interventions were the most effective ones in both older adults, the target population of 50 of the 58 studies, and among young adults, the subject of the other eight. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which aims to reshape negative patterns of thinking, also showed some efficacy in combating loneliness. So-called “befriending” and social facilitation strategies, which seek to increase one’s social network by facilitating new or existing connections, were less effective.
This makes perfect sense if one considers that loneliness is subjective — a state of mind, if you will. Mindfulness meditation seeks to yoke the mind, to attend to even its darkest wanderings with equanimity, to observe and accept what is without judgment.
Thich Nhat Hahn’s Meditation on Loneliness
Long before Covid, the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn gave a dharma talk on loneliness – the spiritual equivalent of a Ted Talk — at his Plum Village monastery. His simple message and guided meditation holds new relevance in the midst of a still-unfolding and newly resurgent pandemic.
“Loneliness is the ill-being of our time. We feel very lonely, even if we are surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside of us, where you don’t feel comfortable. We try to fill the vacuum by connecting with other people. We believe that when you can connect with other people, the feeling of loneliness will disappear. And technology supplies us with a lot of devices in order to connect. ‘Stay connected.’ We always stay connected, but we continue to feel lonely. We check our email several times a day, we send emails several times a day, we post messages; we want to share and we want to receive. We are busy during the day in order to ‘connect’ – but that does not help reduce the amount of loneliness within us.”~Thich Nhat Hahn on the art of embracing loneliness
In the guided meditation embedded in his talk, Thich Nhat Hahn invites the listener to “make peace with your loneliness.”
“I’m aware of my feeling of loneliness, of sadness, of fear, of anxiety. I smile at the feeling of loneliness, of fear, of anxiety. I say: ‘My dear loneliness, I know you are there. I hope to take care of you.’ And you make peace with your loneliness; you make peace with your fear.”~The Art of Embracing Loneliness by Thich Nhat Hahn on YouTube
Learn More and Find Resources for Loneliness
Join our weekly Wellness Through Meditation workshop for an exploration of various types of meditation. Suitable for all levels and people brand new to meditation, the session is led by COVID Support VT Counselor Nate Reit every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Register here.
Join our 10-minute “Monday Meditation” on Facebook Live every Monday at 1 p.m., starting Jan. 10 (except Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 17). Follow COVID Support VT on Facebook and sign up for video notifications, or RSVP to the event here.
Watch the full 1.5-hour teaching on loneliness by Thich Nhat Hahn, or the 20-minute teaching and meditation.
Read Thich Nhat Hahn on the art of embracing loneliness from PlumVillage.org.
Find guided meditations and links to a wide variety of meditation apps, including the Plum Village app in the Self-Help Resources section of COVIDSupportVT.org.
The CDC’s Healthy Aging section provides a good overview of the health effects of loneliness and social isolation and a thorough list of resources to connect older people to services.
Tulane University offers an excellent review of the mental health impact of social isolation, which includes practical guidance on signs to watch for and what to do.
Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health
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COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports.