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 Since March 2020,  pandemic-mode has become a way of life for all of us. The isolation of pandemic life has worsened what some experts call the “loneliness epidemic,” which was already affecting so many.

Yet loneliness is something rarely discussed—and that is mind-boggling. 

Studies show that two in five Americans report they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful and one in five say they feel lonely or isolated.

Researchers warn that loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to Brigham Young University Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, people’s lack of connection can have life-threatening consequences. 

Living alone, being single, divorced, widowed or  being newly retired  are obvious risk factors for loneliness. Like many,  I am no stranger to loneliness. After the deaths of my two husbands and following a  painful  breakup, I felt that hollow space deep within. I came to know that,  with time and self-directed healing,  the feelings of isolation lessened, I regrouped and re-entered  the world. 

 However, you don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. Loneliness is  more of a state of  mind and heart. One can feel  “heart loneliness” even when we are  surrounded by people. 

Heart loneliness can happen in a marriage or a relationship. Spending time with your spouse or significant other doesn’t mean you can’t feel lonely in their presence. 

 Perhaps physical  and emotional intimacy are lacking. If  meaningful conversations about one’s vulnerabilities, fears and dreams are nonexistent,  how can one feel connected? Consequently, if  the  person closest to you doesn’t know what makes you tick, a  wide chasm between you and your partner may be created. 

 Physical intimacy,  sexual and nonsexual ( touching, cuddling, handholding),  is often the driving force that binds two people together and encourages  trust. Absence of physical intimacy can contribute to feeling isolated and cut off from one’s partner.

 Sometimes, instead of having a conversation, some try to fill the loneliness  by taking on a lover or  engage in other distracting behaviors .  These Band-aids may temporally dispel one’s  quiet desperation for connection. 

 Expecting a partner or spouse to fill one’s social needs is detrimental to both parties. Feelings  of  loneliness develop  when one is unable to navigate the bridge to new friendships. Instead, they choose to stay within the confines of  a relationship, and  consequently  a wall of frustration is erected. 

Humans have a need to feel connected to other people, yet heart loneliness  can also occur in a crowd. We may be conversing, dancing, and outwardly looking put-together, but inside we may feel cut off emotionally. 

Sometimes folks seek connections with the wrong people. There are a multitude of ways to spend  time with people; however, these connections all serve different purposes. If you are a teetotaler,  it is unlikely you will feel less lonely in a bar full of boisterous folks. Conversely, if you crave excitement, you may find playing  cards dull and boring. In fact, being with the wrong people can make one feel more alone. 

Just to be clear:  Solitude isn’t the same thing as loneliness. Solitude is voluntary; loneliness is not. One can be alone—even crave precious  alone time—yet rarely feel  lonely. 

Those who feel comfortable and at ease within themselves have made peace with life situations that did not bring peace. Psychiatrist Carl Jung encourages us to befriend our “shadow” side — the side most of us run from or bury—and that’s the rub. 

 We may  go along to get along. Yet all the while our hearts are achingly lonely. Running away from unpleasant feelings  is a race you will never win. Studies show that when we bury our emotions, it takes an enormous amount of energy to keep them suppressed. Buried emotions also carry the burden of fear: We are afraid to have that necessary conversation with our partner, spouse, friends,  or ourselves—ourselves being the operative word. 

 “To thine own self be true,”  is a famous phrase from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But are we? Combating heart loneliness is a tricky business and requires risk-taking. We need to confront the “shadow” that lurks inside. Get curious and compassionate about what feelings are emerging and draw them out into the light of day. 

Loneliness is a  poverty of self. There is no magic pill or vaccine that will ease feelings of isolation. Once we recognize that heart loneliness is a deep and desperate need  of reuniting with ones lost self, we begin the healing process.

Once we rescue the parts of ourselves we have repressed, loneliness will dim. You will come easily home to yourself and your heart will fill with the brilliant joyful light of reunion. 

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Celia Iannelli is a native New Yorker enjoying a second career — in 'retirement' — as a freelance writer. She lives in Jamesport.