Posted on 09:33 22/01/2018
Everybody feels lonely at some time in their life. Maybe they've just lost a loved one. Maybe they've moved to a new city and don't yet know anybody. Maybe they're sick or in pain and feel cut off from other people. We've all felt it but what exactly is loneliness and how does it affect us?
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is an emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. It often includes anxiety about being disconnected from other people or not having anyone to turn to in times of distress or depression. Loneliness is an emotion - like happiness, sadness or surprise - and has nothing to do with whether you are a good person or a good friend.
Loneliness can be temporary - such as when your plans for a night out suddenly fall through and you find yourself alone. In these cases it may only last hours or a day.
It can also be a chronic situation - where people feel cut off or isolated from others for months or even years.
Is loneliness bad for you?
Loneliness can have a significant impact on your health. Not so much temporary loneliness; although this may result in anxiety or depression but generally, this is short lived.
Chronic loneliness is another thing. Research has shown that loneliness increases the risk of just about every major chronic illness: cancer, heart attacks, infections and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, there are psychological impacts such as chronic stress, anxiety and depression. Some people have said that the health risks of chronic loneliness are similar to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or obesity!
Why is chronic loneliness so bad?
Most people have heard of the "flight or fight" response. This is a very old response to a potentially dangerous or challenging situation, such as a sabre tooth tiger attack. When you feel threatened, your body releases a hormone called adrenalin which causes a number of changes in the body: increased heart and breathing rate, blood to flow to limbs to allow you to run or fight and increases your alertness and ability to quickly respond to a situation. It also prepares the body's ability to rapidly respond to an injury, such as a sabre tooth tiger bite, by increasing inflammation and dampening down your response to other infections.
People who are chronically lonely are in a constant "flight or fight" mode. They are constantly primed for the sabre tooth tiger attack that never comes. This means they constantly have a faster breathing and pulse rate, they feel constantly stressed and very importantly, they have high levels of inflammation. High levels of inflammation have been linked to cancer, depression, Alzheimer's disease, obesity and many other chronic health conditions.
If loneliness is so bad, why do you feel it?
Loneliness is a biological warning - just like hunger and pain. It is telling you that you felt disconnected or alone as a prompt to seek out others. It probably evolved very early in the history of mankind - when people lived in groups as a means of protection, Back then, it was potentially dangerous for people to be alone because they may be attacked by animals or fall and hurt themselves.
Who is most likely to feel chronically lonely?
Anybody can feel chronically lonely but certain groups have a higher risk:
What can you do if you feel lonely?
Loneliness is often assumed to be a problem of social isolation - one that main effects the elderly, people who are unable to leave their home or those who have no family or friends close by. In fact, loneliness has little to do with being on your own or not having many friends - you can feel lonely in a crowd of people and married people can feel lonely although their spouse is right beside them!
Loneliness has more to do with a mismatch between what we are experiencing and our expectations of our lives should be or how we believe we should be interacting with others. Matthew felt lonely when his wife died and he was facing his old age alone. Susan felt lonely when her ex-husband moved overseas leaving her to bring up their three children alone. Peter felt lonely when he moved to work in a city where he had no social or family circle. If you believe you should have a particular type of but it has turned out very different, you may feel lonely.
To change the feeling of loneliness, rather than trying to expand your social circle, start by expanding your mind. Loneliness is an emotion and it's a well known fact that you can't feel two emotions at the same time! So, concentrate of feeling other, positive emotions. They are happening - all the time - but when your mind is consumed with loneliness, you concentrate on the negative things that reinforce this emotion.
As a first step, when you have a social interaction - maybe a meeting with somebody, a phone call or a visitor - try to remember one good thing that happened during that interaction. It's known that lonely people often pay attention to or remember the negative things that occur during a social event and this compounds their feeling of loneliness so by paying attention to the good things, it helps to break this cycle.
Another good things to do is keep a small diary. At the end of each day, write down at least one good thing that happened - it's even better if that good thing happened when you were with another person! Start the sentence with "Today I enjoyed......" . In this way, you start to look for the good things that happen each day.
Gratitude is another emotion that can help us overcome loneliness. Gratitude is an emotion we feel with somebody does something unexpected to help us. When we feel gratitude, we feel connected to that person. In your little diary, write down three things you were grateful for - naming the person - each week!
Finding a sense of purpose or meaning in life can often help people who are lonely. When people develop an interest in or a passion about something, it takes them out of their negative mind set. They look for knowledge and ways to apply their new learning and skills. Along the way they may meet new people and find a new community of like minded people. This was the case of Carol who moved interstate for her work. Living in a small rural community and working long hours, she had little time to develop friendships and became lonely. One day she saw an advertisement for a free wildlife carer's course. She'd always been interested in wildlife so went alone and quickly became involved in rescuing and caring for wildlife. As Karen discovered, it's very difficult to feel lonely when you're enthusiastic about a new project!
What if loneliness is overwhelming?
Sometimes, your sense of loneliness is overwhelming - you feel totally disconnected from other people and social situations. You may feel that you don't want to leave the house or talk to anybody. This is okay in the short term- as few days or so - but in the long term this may indicated you need some assistance. A health care profession such as a psychologist can help you identify what is causing this severe anxiety or depression and help you with it. It may be necessary to take medication for a short period of time to help "break the circuit".
If you are feeling suicidal or homicidal it is essential that you seek assistance.
People who are in abusive situations, particularly domestic violence, may need special assistance to help escape the situation.