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The other “L WORD”: Loneliness

Loneliness. It’s something we don’t tend to talk about and less rarely admit.

There is even such a stigma around it that some people are more inclined to admit they are depressed than lonely. But loneliness is very common and can hit anyone, at any time, and at any age.

It is not something specific to the elderly or housebound, as indicated by a rapid rise in loneliness amongst younger generations.

Sadly, because loneliness is a pretty taboo subject we often don’t realise just how normal it is and many people are going through it.

If we are lonely, we often tend to believe we are the only ones.

However, a 2018 survey conducted by health insurer Cigna, in conjunction with the University of California LA, found over half of Americans consider themselves lonely.

Unfortunately, the more connected we’ve become, the lonelier and more isolated we are getting.

Loneliness can be such a difficult even painful emotion.

It can be experienced by different people in different ways but has been described as a persistent feeling of sadness, isolation, numbness, rejection and even a “black abyss”.

The fact that loneliness is considered a painful emotion is no coincidence given it has been found to effect the same region of the brain as physical pain. (Eisenberg, Leiberman and Williams, 2003).

Being lonely is a very different experience to being alone or having some downtime.

Researchers define loneliness as “perceived isolation”. “Perceived” as you can be surrounded by others, even so-called friends, and yet feel isolated, disconnected or emotionally unsupported.

Alternatively, one can just have just one or two loyal confidentants that they see on an infrequent basic and not feel lonely. The emotional pain of loneliness is thought to have been a protective function evolutionarily.

Just as hunger, thirst and physical pain stimulate us to take action, feelings of loneliness prompted us to congregate in groups or tribes which increased our chances of survival.

Most people will feel lonely at different times in their lives. Transient loneliness is normal.

I certainly remember feeling lonely as a new mum and in recent years I have definitely experienced bouts of loneliness upon moving from new country to new country for my husband’s work.

But it is chronic loneliness that is the killer, quite literally. Research suggests it is as toxic to our health as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). 15!

Loneliness also increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015), as well as, increasing the risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley, et al., 2010), heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al., 2016). The link between depression and loneliness is also strong. It is a kind of “chicken-or-egg” type dilemma.

Extreme loneliness can lead to depression, but then depressed individuals tend to socially withdraw and isolate themselves further, resulting in loneliness.

Loneliness is not fun. Whether it presents as a transient dull ache, or as a more chronic emotional pain triggered by feelings of isolation, here are a few suggestions you might try:

-Start by setting small goals to connect e.g. enquiring about a local club or organisation based on a hobby you enjoy.

-Remember it is not just about quantity. It is the the quality of our social interactions that really count.

-Cast your net wide when looking for friends. You never know where you might find a new treasured friend. Be on the lookout for people with similar hobbies, interests, values and attitudes as you.

-If you find a potential friendship commit time and energy into developing it. Nurture any existing relationships. Remember: friendships, like marriages, take work.

-To move beyond the superficial level in new friendships don’t be afraid to show a little bit of yourself. Let others in. Be authentic.

-Demonstrate genuine curiosity in others and their lives. People like feeling heard and receiving attention. They are also much more likely to return the favour. This outward focus on others will also help take your mind of your own suffering for a while.

-Always say “yes” to invitations to connect. Always show up when meeting other people. Protracted loneliness can really knock our self-esteem, confidence and energy levels. Ignore thoughts of doubt or self-criticism and gently but firmly push yourself to get out there.

-Keep trying! If a bid, or multiple bids, for friendship don’t work, do not give up. Accept some people just connect better than others. Don’t take it personally and move on.

-Strike up a short conversation with the people you see on a regular basis e.g. your mail carrier, crossing guard or barrista. Just this simple human contact can help with feelings of isolation. It will also help you practice your social skills and focus outside yourself.

-Limit your time on social media. Online friends, no matter how many hundreds you have, can’t replace real face to face friendships. The highly choreographed , superficial online lives of others can make us feel inadequate. If you have any local online friends, reach out and meet up with them instead.

- Don’t be hard, on yourself. Show yourself self-compassion. Loneliness is hard. But don’t wallow or indulge in self-pity. Congratulate yourself for taking small steps towards connecting with others.

-Treat yourself as a good friend. Go on solo dates or adventures. Get to know yourself.

-Practice acceptance. Use mindfulness to let go of unhelpful thoughts as, “nobody likes me” or “I’ll never make friends”.

-Consider doing community service or volunteer work. You might bump into a potential friend, but at the very least shifting your focus onto others, rather than being as introspective will help you feel better.

-Find a meaningful project and throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. Research has shown meaning and purpose as essential ingredients to human happiness. Dedicating your time and energy to something you consider personally important can generate positive emotions and feelings of flow (an enjoyable state of full immersion and engagement). This could help offset some of the pain of loneliness.

-Never give up! Your “tribe” is out there somewhere. Keep looking.

-Talk to a professional. If persistent loneliness is having a detrimental effect on your physical, mental and emotional well-being consider talking to one of the highly qualified and empathetic counselors or coaches at Sam Nabil Counseling Services. We are here to help.

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