However, as autonomous and independent as we may be, interpersonal relationships provide us with security and well-being; these two aspects are essential to maintain our psychological balance. When, for one reason or another, we begin to isolate ourselves, loneliness may end up taking a toll.
Neuroscientist, John Cacioppo has dedicated his career to studying loneliness, and states, “The absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain.” Through his research, he also referred to loneliness as being like an iceberg, much deeper than we see from the surface.
Why Do We Feel Alone?
When we think of loneliness, we immediately associate it with the lack of human contact, but the truth is that we can feel alone, even when surrounded by many people.
Emotional loneliness is a state of mind and is linked to feelings of misunderstanding, sadness, and insecurity. If we perceive that the people around us do not understand us and do not share our values and preferences, we can feel isolated, misunderstood, and introverted.
What Is Loneliness?
People can experience loneliness for several reasons, and many life events can be associated with it. The scarcity of friendships during childhood and adolescence or lack of meaningful adult companions are just a few contributors to loneliness. At the same time, loneliness may be related to chronic depression.
- Many people experience loneliness for the first time when left alone as babies.
- Break-up, divorce, or the death of a loved one. The loss of an important person in one’s life may induce loneliness through grief. In this situation, one might seem lonely even in the company of others.
- This drive for solitude can also occur after the birth of a child, as in postpartum depression.
- Loneliness can occur even after a happy and positive celebration such as a wedding or a retirement. Transitioning from familiar surroundings to that of the unknown, such as; a new city, town, or new job, however positive, can trigger a sense of loneliness.
- Loneliness can result from an environment of anger, resentment, excluded on social media, or mistrust. The lack of loving connections, emotional support, and communication can have a severe impact on feeling isolated and alone.
Loneliness is a response to the need to belong and having interpersonal relationships that can provide a healthy emotional state. Learning to cope with changing life patterns is crucial in overcoming loneliness. It is a legitimate need that should never be ignored or taken lightly. Long-term effects of loneliness can have damaging health concerns, ranging from physical health issues to addiction, to high blood pressure and obesity.
In fact, the pain of loneliness has been used as torture and punishment throughout history in prisons and internment camps. Isolation, solitary confinement, and the absence of human connection can have a grave impact on our physical and mental well-being.
What Are the Signs of Loneliness?
Some of the more common signs of loneliness are:
- Sleep problems, e.g., broken sleep, trouble falling, or staying asleep
- Have more daytime fatigue
- Are more susceptible to disrupted regulation of cellular processes.
- Low energy
- Consume more alcohol or drug use
- Brain fog
- Lack of interest in food / increased eating habits
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Feeling depressed and increased feeling of anxiety
- Getting sick more often
- Aches and pain like migraine, muscle tension, and headaches.
- Increased attachment to material possessions
- Decreased importance of personal hygiene
- Binge-watching television, or internet
- Excess shopping
What Does It Feel Like to Be Lonely?
Feeling lonely is a very personal perspective. People who experience loneliness may find themselves feeling worn out, anxious, depressed, and physically tired. They may experience deep sadness and emotionally distraught, as well as develop physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach upset, and brain fog. It’s not uncommon for those experiencing loneliness to become defensive or argumentative; therefore, they isolate themselves further by avoiding contact with friends and family. For some people, they may work to excess, which allows the avoidance of others.
When an individual feels as though he/she doesn’t fit in, or has a difficulty contributing to social settings, it’s easier to feel the pain of isolation, rather than the effect of anxiety and possible humiliation.
Those who have experienced loneliness refer to it as a feeling of loss, compounded with emotional grief, sorrow, and sadness. It is a feeling of being unwanted, no value, unable, discarded, shameful, and unloved.
How Does Loneliness Affect Your Health?
Long-term feelings of loneliness can have an affect on your health in various forms. Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces when under stress, lonely, or isolated. This can cause excess weight gain, sleep disorders, inflammation, difficulty concentrating, substance abuse, and even insulin resistance. Below, we will look at some of the effects loneliness may have on our overall well-being.
When emotional loneliness is present, it can produce sadness, anguish, anxiety, and even fear. In addition, not having an emotional support system can significantly reduce our self-esteem and increase our vulnerability. It’s not uncommon for people who feel alone to continue to isolate themselves. This can contribute to a sense of loss of joy with day-to-day activities once enjoyed. It can also cause avoidance or making excuses for not participating in social settings. This can be a pivotable point when loneliness can cross over into depression.
2. A weakening of the immune system
The feeling of loneliness has also been linked to a weakening of the immune system. Lisa Jaremka, of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University and lead author of the research indicated that loneliness is closely linked to dysfunctional immune responses. For example, a study recently conducted at the University of Ohio showed that people who may be alone, produce a more significant amount of proteins linked to inflammation. This can play an essential role in the onset of diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s.
3. Sleep Problems
A study conducted with 2 groups; one with lonely people, and the other with non-lonely people. This study showed that lonely people did not have the same quality of sleep, as did the non-lonely people. Although both groups slept the same number of hours, the lonely group had less quality sleep and felt more tired upon waking.
4. Social Behavior
Rene Spitz, an Austrian-American psychoanalyst, performed a study in the 1940s which claimed that social interaction at birth is essential for human development. The study showed that motor and intellectual skills of infants suffered after extended periods of isolation, and the infants who were alone for long periods developed social and behavioral disorders.
Since social isolation and loneliness are frequently encountered by older adults, the increased risk of poor health has been reported. Many older adults do not eat a balanced diet, as they feel that it is too much trouble preparing meals for one. And, it is also noted that older adults, and/or seniors do not drink enough water to remain hydrated, which in effect, causes a host of other health issues.
Loneliness and isolation can result in a shutdown of emotions, inability to empathize, and difficulty communicating feelings. People who feel lonely also feel dissatisfaction with their life. ‘Psychology Today’ reported that lonely people believe that there is something wrong with them because they are not social. This thought process becomes a vicious cycle, creating isolation and therefore feeling alone. Extreme loneliness in adults can perpetuate depression, along with drug and alcohol abuse, and in severe cases, can lead to an increase in suicide.
Isolation and Loneliness:
Loneliness is a state of mind. Isolation is the state of being separated from others. Loneliness is characterized by an aimless sense of isolation. Isolation is being alone and does not necessarily mean one is lonely. When one is isolated and feels alone, senses are bombarded, coping is more complicated, and it feels as though pressures are mounting.
Loneliness can involve a deep sense of isolation and disconnection from others. It occurs when a person feels they have no one with whom to share life’s joys, sorrows, and hardships. Some have stated that the feeling of loneliness has increased their sadness and referred to; prison-like, leaving them feeling sad toward life. Each individual is different, and each case of how people perceive loneliness is also different.
Research published in the journal of International Psychogeriatrics indicates that there are 3 periods in life when loneliness may peak, starting in their late 20s, their mid-50s, and their late 80s. It has been noted that people in their late 20s often feel stress over decisions they made, compared to better decisions made from their peers, which can increase loneliness. The mid-50s is the midlife crisis period, generally when health issues become more prevalent, and quality of health may decline. You may begin to realize that your life span is not forever. The late 80s is a period of significant health deterioration, possible financial issues, and the death of a spouse, as well as friends. Interestingly enough, both men and women felt equally lonely and to the same degree.
Loneliness has said to be:
- A negative state of mind, marked by a hollow sense of isolation. You know something is missing. You can be in a crowd of friends and family, and yet still feel all alone and lonely.
- Profoundly unpleasant, a vacuous state of disharmony and discontent. Loneliness is the harsh isolation of your soul.
- An imposition by forces and factors real and/or imagined.
Isolation, on the other hand, is a state of complete or near-complete lack of contact between other people and society. It can be a physical, emotional, or communicative distance between ourselves and those around us.
People today, unfortunately, feel more isolated than ever. The average family unit is fractured, the divorce rate is 50%, and more people live alone today than ever before.
Traumatic episodes, such as being bullied or as an integral part of a medical disorder, such as depression, often feel isolated and experience loneliness. Also, several studies have shown that people living in isolation often have difficulty learning and making decisions.
When we are not actively engaged in our outside world, or with others, our brain does not receive enough stimuli to remain challenged. For this reason, people living in isolation may be slow to make decisions or respond to questions asked. Chronic or prolonged isolation may cause lasting changes in the way we perceive our outside world. Thus, people living in isolation are more reactive to so-called “social” threats such as the fear of rejection by others.
A prolonged period of loneliness may be associated with depression, poor social support, neuroticism, and introversion. Lonely individuals have been shown to have difficulty forming and maintaining meaningful relationships with others. This is directly correlated with social anxiety, shyness, sadness, hostility, distrust, and low self-esteem. Unfortunately, these traits hamper one’s ability to form meaningful bonds of closeness and rewarding relationships.
Symptoms and complaints
- Feeling sad, lonely, depressed.
- Excessively self-critical, worthlessness.
- Diminished self-esteem.
- Unexplained weariness or weeping.
- Tired, no energy, Feeling tired, energy-less, exhausted.
- Changes in sleep patterns, i.e., insomnia, craving too much sleep, or none at all.
- Changes in eating patterns; eating too much or too little.
- Weight loss.
- Feeling empty, lifeless.
- Disinterest in everything and everyone.
- Concentration problems.
- Vague complaints about physical symptoms, e.g., headaches.
- Agitated behavior.
- Manic behavior.
5 Ways To Deal With Loneliness:
1. Talk to your doctor, therapist, or your health care professional
Let someone know how you are feeling. Since chronic loneliness isn’t just feeling isolated and alienation from others, it could be deeply rooted negative beliefs about yourself that could lead to other emotional problems. Your health care professionals can help you work through these thought patterns, and give you the tools necessary to help or overcome these feelings.
2. Stay occupied
Challenge yourself to keep busy, even for only 10 minutes a day. Practicing mindful meditation has shown to help many people overcome loneliness. Try and incorporate something different into your day-to-day routine – read a few pages from a positive self-help book, and visualize the help already working for you.
3. Get out and about
As hard as it may be, force yourself to go outside. When you’re feeling lonely, just being around people can be enough to give your mood a boost. Even small amounts of exercise and sunlight can help elevate your endorphins and increase your serotonin levels. Head to the park and bring your book – you don’t necessarily have to interact with anyone; just being near other people can make you feel more connected to the world.
4. Join an online community
Social interaction comes in many forms, and for some, making friends online can really help with loneliness. There are online communities for people with all sorts of interests, so get googling and find a forum or a social network that you may like. If you’re feeling down, perhaps you may want to visit elefriends.org.uk, the peer-to-peer support community managed by Mind, the mental health charity. It’s a place where you can share your feelings without fear of being judged, and receive support from others in similar situations.
5. Focus on your health through exercise and nutrition
Exercise helps depression by reducing cortisol and increasing serotonin. Participating in just 10 minutes of gentle exercise per day will set you on the right path and help to produce the all-natural, feel-good drugs within your body. Making healthy choice meals will also not only give your body the fuel it needs to work effectively, but will also boost your immune system, thereby helping your body re-charge.
If you are dealing with long-term loneliness, and have tried many tips and suggestions, to no avail, talk with your doctor to rule out any other underlying medical condition.
Personal Stories of Loneliness:
“Gillian’s life dramatically changed when she had to go to the hospital for a hip operation. Aged 70, the effect on Gillian was not just physical, her mental health also deteriorated, and she subsequently withdrew into herself. She spent three long months in the hospital.
Unbelievably, whilst in hospital, Gillian’s local authority cleared out her flat of all her personal belongings and memories, she had spent years collecting. On leaving the hospital, Gillian had no access to the things she loved and treasured. The life she knew was no more. She was devastated. She felt like she had experienced a bereavement.
On leaving hospital Gillian was relocated to extra care accommodation, miles away from her friends and familiar surroundings. She became depressed and started to experience anxiety attacks. She withdrew from life and doing the things she loved.
Gillian did not leave her flat for a whole year. She did not go out and meet her friends or make any efforts to interact with the other residents. Gillian only saw a care worker for 20 minutes per day who was too busy doing their job. She had only the radio or the television for company”…[Read More]
Rafael Rozenblad’s story…
“To me, loneliness is a mix of emotions. It feels like being sad, useless, and invisible. I was five years old when I ended up at a crisis center for women. My parents went through a painful divorce, and we had to move to a women’s shelter in Heerlen from our home in Rotterdam. My father was schizophrenic and abused my mother. I once witnessed him hitting my mother with a baby carriage while I was standing next to them. I was a small child who couldn’t intervene. I isolated myself from my family and became increasingly lonely and depressed. The loneliness I felt back then was rooted in fear, sadness, and the feeling of powerlessness.
My mother received psychological help and treatment at the women’s shelter, while my sister, brother, and me were waiting for help. But nobody came to help us; we were just told to play with our peers. The feelings of loneliness turned into confusion and insecurity about our situation. There was jealousy too. My mother received help, but nobody helped me. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting any attention.
After being at the shelter for nine months, we finally moved into a rental house. Suddenly, my mother had the full responsibility of three children, and so she decided that it was best for me to live elsewhere. I was eight years old and the middle child. Being older, my brother was more independent than I was, and my sister was still very young, so I think my mother wanted me out of the house to focus entirely on raising her…” [Read More]
5 Tips On How To Overcome Loneliness:
Loneliness is a universal human experience that has the potential to affect all of us. One of the secrets to avoiding loneliness is by breaking down the stigma around asking for help. Many people do not ask for the help they need in fear they may be a bother to someone or appear socially inept. The reality is, seeking support and speaking up is one of the best things you can do for your emotional well-being.
Here are 5 ways to overcome loneliness.
1. Learn to enjoy your own company
There is a huge difference between being lonely and being alone. Learning to enjoy time on your own can be just as rewarding as having an active social life. Most people who feel lonely tend to be very critical towards themselves and may see themselves in a negative manner. Being overly judgmental on yourself only confirms the negative narrative you may have formulated, causing even more reason to isolate yourself from others.
Using your time alone by focusing on boosting your mental and emotional health will significantly help reduce feelings of inadequacies and insecurities. Learn to meditate daily, and practice positive self-talk, investing in 10 minutes a day can do wonders. Perhaps take an online course, or read well written, self-help material that will inspire you to view things in a different light.
Choose one thing per day about yourself, to recognize positively – then write it down. Utilize your time alone to learn how to enjoy your own company. By focusing on learning new skills and utilizing those skills by investing in yourself, you can turn loneliness into being alone and enjoying the person you are with – you!
2. Volunteer your time
For some, just the thought of being with other people is worsened by issues like shyness or social anxiety. One way to overcome the feeling of loneliness is to put yourself in places where you can meet new people by focusing on a task and a need through volunteering your time. Companies, charitable organizations, and your community need you!
Once you force yourself through your discomfort, it will become more comfortable each time, and the benefits may be enormous and quite surprising. Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others, which helps you develop a solid support system while improving your mood and reducing your stress and anxiety.
On a personal note, a few years ago, 2 months before Christmas-time, I moved to a different province where I knew no one. I had no friends, family, nor connections in my new location. After spending a couple of weeks acclimatizing to my new surroundings, unpacking, and finding my way around, it hit me – I was all by myself!
As the holidays were fast approaching, I realized that this was going to be my very first Christmas all on my own, by myself, without a single familiar being with me. Prior to moving, I fantasized about finally being able to enjoy the long-overdue peace, quiet and solitude, I so desperately needed, but, I could feel the loneliness start creeping in.
I decided to join the local YMCA and make swimming part of my weekly routine. It was during one of my visits, I noticed a course of interest that was available to all members who wished to participate, so I signed up. This is where I met a wonderful man who, every Christmas eve, as well as Christmas day, volunteered his time (and resources) to help those less fortunate, and those who didn’t have family, friends, or a home to go to. I shared my story with him and asked if he would mind if I was to tag along during his visits.
This happened to be one of the best Christmases I ever had! The genuine love and appreciation I received from those in need, just because I showed up, reached out, gave hugs, and well wishes, was truly magical. Had I not pushed myself to step out of my comfort zone, I would have never had that experience of making a profound difference in someone else’s life. Volunteer your time, you’ll be glad you did. Besides, the worst thing that may happen is that you might make a new friend!
Consider adopting a pet
Above all else, be prepared that responsible pet ownership is a commitment for the lifespan of your pet. This also includes veterinary visits, daily care, and maintenance, as well as providing plenty of affection and attention. If you can commit your time, energy, money, love, and devotion to owning a pet, then it may be a perfect solution to provide valuable companionship.
4. Exercise and Eat Well
Exercise and proper nutrition have a whole host of positive benefits to help combat loneliness, depression, and anxiety. When you exercise, even for 15 minutes a day, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals increase serotonin levels, which can improve your mood and produce a positive and energizing state of being. Activities that elevate your heart rate, such as swimming, biking, dancing, tennis, and even a good brisk walk will provide you with those feel-good chemicals. Whatever exercise you choose, it should be something you are willing to commit to, and something that you find enjoyable. Ensure that you set reasonable goals that will help to maintain consistency – this will also help you stay on track. Set up a schedule and follow it every day.
5. Seek Professional Help
Meeting with a therapist or a mental health professional can help you explore issues and reasons behind your loneliness. Never feel afraid to seek help, ask for advice, or feel like you are the only one going through this.
Many people experience loneliness, and many people receive assistance only to find that by talking and sharing their experience with a qualified professional, they begin to feel better.
Even though you may be experiencing loneliness now, it does not mean it’s permanent. Loneliness is a state of transient thought that can be overcome by taking active measures to identify your current condition and making an effort to change it.
If you can inject some of the helpful tips within this article into your daily life, you might find that feeling lonely may become a thing of the past. And remember, when that happens, you will be a great teacher and a wonderful confidant for someone else who may be walking in your old shoes.