The past year has been challenging. The Pandemic brought on quarantine, which meant, for most of us, less commuting and an opening up of more windows of time. For those living without roommates or families, this time has given way to more solitude than ever. And, though solitude doesn't necessarily equate to loneliness, for many its led to a creeping up of this feeling—if not a full blown engulfment at the hands of it, of loneliness.
It's been said that...
"loneliness is the number one predictor of early mortality."
And yet we rarely talk about it.
Which comes down to the stigma affiliated with loneliness.
It's as if to talk about loneliness is to admit that you are "defective"—less capable than others at keeping on, or less liked than others because surely everyone else must have the golden standard of a support network and then here we are: less loved and so lonely.
This isn't true. This is just our minds at work. Our minds invent stories, because stories come with solutions or conclusions, and that's exactly what our minds are after: answers. They are wired to tie a bow on the problems presented to us so they can neatly store them away. They save energy in that way.
In this article we're going to talk about what loneliness is; its effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health; and how to cope with it in order to live our best lives.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a state of mind wherein one feels disconnected from others, and dissatisfied by this disconnection. In and of itself, it is not a mental health condition, but, if ignored for too long, it can act as a trigger for conditions like depression and anxiety.
What are the risk factors for loneliness?
It's important to note before going further that, as there is no one cause for loneliness, there is no "quick-fix" for this emotional state. Rather, the solution lies in the details of the problem.
For example, a lonely child struggling to make friends at school is experiencing a different branch of grief than a lonely widow coping with the loss of a partner. The child and the widow therefore need different solutions to tend to their unique loneliness.
That said, there are shared traits in those struggling with loneliness. Traits that, if worked on, can ease the pain.
1. Focusing on solitude
Many who identify as "lonely" spend a good portion of their time focusing on their solitude and "spiralling down" from there.
Spiralling down can look like thinking about how you are so alone and how you wish there were people nearby you'd enjoy spending time, and then overthinking about why this is not your reality, until you wind up in an unhealthy place.
This tends to happen when we interlink curiosity with negative self-talk.
For instance, "I wish I wasn't alone all the time. Why am I so alone? No one else is this alone. What's wrong with me? Why does no one want to hang out with me? Does no one like me? Would anyone even notice if I wasn't here?"
People struggling with loneliness have deep cravings for human interaction, but their negative mental states make it difficult to connect with others. It can therefore become a vicious cycle.
2. Life transitions
Moving to a new place, starting a new job, and other major life transitions have been known to trigger feelings of loneliness. The reason here is that with big lifestyle changes comes increased stress—even when the change is positive. That's why it's so hard to change. Change literally demands more of our energy than repetition does.
If the change is intense, things like going out to socialize (or popping onto a Zoom chat) can fall off our radar, quickly. We simply don't have enough it in us to do these seemingly "unnecessary" things.
More emotionally challenging transitions can include things like getting divorced, losing a partner, and being forced, as we've all been the past year, into physical isolation. In these cases, it can feel almost overwhelming to prioritize building genuine connection, even though it may just be the medicine that we need most.
3. Low Self-Esteem
As mentioned earlier, it can be hard to ward off the negative self-talk that may come up when one is lonely. And it is even harder if we don't value ourselves.
If we don't believe, for instance, that we deserve others' love, affection, and attention, then we will, essentially, lay down at the feet of our inner critic.
This is what can lead to chronic loneliness and isolation.
How Loneliness affects Us
As mentioned, loneliness ignored can fester, damaging your mental well-being through the activation of toxic stress levels. These can go on to manifest as conditions like OCD, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, depression, and more.
Since we're holistic beings, mismanaged loneliness will also take a toll on our emotional and physical health. Two leading researchers found that loneliness triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which threatens our immune system. And these changes can be detected at the cellular level.
To demonstrate this more specifically, one researcher conducted a study in which a number of students were tested using their saliva. The findings were such that the students with tons of acquaintances, but no close relationships, had higher levels of cortisol and poorer sleep when compared to the students with a handful of deep relationships.
Here are some other ways loneliness impacts our health.
increased Risk of premature Death
Loneliness can be a significant cause of premature mortality. According to the research by Holt Lunstad, relationships improve your odds of survival by 50%.
Loneliness can be one of the significant causes of depression. A study shows that the higher the level of loneliness, the greater the likelihood for symptoms of depression in a person. Whereas the more we are around positive people, the less likely we are to develop depression.
There are many reasons for this, but exchanging thoughts and ideas, versus letting them sit stagnant in our minds, is one of them. Through conversation, we get out of our own heads. And this is healthy. It allows for our negative self-talk to be challenged, for one. It allows for us to be listened to, for two, which leads to that feeling of being loved and supported, which bolster self-love and self-confidence. And, altogether, allows us to connect, grow, and find meaning and purpose in our lives.
Inflammation in The Body
Inflammation is an innate defensive mechanism built into our bodies to ward off attack. Loneliness is perceived by our bodies as a threat. So, when we are lonely for a prolonged period of time, we become inflamed. Aside from being uncomfortable, chronic inflammation can have serious effects. I.e. Asthma, ulcers, arthritis, tuberculosis, periodontitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's and more.
People who tend to feel lonely also face difficulty while interacting with others. They perceive daily social situations as threatening. Lonely people are quite sensitive to social situations because it forces them to interact in which they are not much confident.
They do not want to interact, talk, or discuss things, but the situation and people around them trigger them to do so, and they get into self-assassination, which makes them feel less confident. So, loneliness makes human interaction difficult too.
Loneliness has been linked with cardiovascular issues. It's been found if you're constantly feeling lonely, you're 32% more likely to develop a heart stroke, and 29% more likely to come down with a coronary heart disease.
Interacting with others gives you support that you need. And it can offer you perspective, too. For instance, when you hear about your friends' difficulties, yours, if similar, may feel normalized. Or, yours may feel less overwhelming, possibly because your friends' may be more objectively dire. Or, simply because you're taking a break from mulling over your own challenges.
In an effort to find support or stability, it's common to turn to food, either consuming too much to fill a sort of emotional void, or by consuming too little in an effort to prove to yourself you don't need anything or anyone.
In extreme cases, these behaviours can spin into full blown eating disorders, such as anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. It's important to get help if you think you may be in this situation.
cold and flu symptoms
People feeling lonely can exhibit more intense cold and flu symptoms.
How Can You Overcome Loneliness?
Loneliness can be overcome. However, it requires consistent and conscious effort stemming from a true desire to make a change.
Start with unearthing the cause behind your loneliness. Only after that can you address it head on.
Here are some common pieces that breed loneliness that may trigger thought:
I'm scared of opening up to others and connecting on a vulnerable level because of X.
I've just moved somewhere new and don't feel like anyone in this city/town will accept me because X, and so I won't try to get to know them.
My whole life I've formed relationships I didn't much care to nourish because X.
Deep down, I have low self-esteem stemming from X.
Deep down, I have social anxiety stemming from X.
Deep down, I doubt anyone cares about me because X.
Deep down, I don't know how much I even like the person I am because X.
Again, it's important to dig deep. If any of the above ring true, find out where the thoughts formed. Go from there.
Daily Tips for Overcoming Loneliness
While the deeper work may take time, here are some little things that you can do day to day to help heal your loneliness.
Stay Connected with Your Loved Ones
Staying in touch with your family and friends is a powerful tool for combatting loneliness. With the Internet, you don't necessarily need to do this in person. True, virtual connection is not the same, but it serves a purpose. Especially in the age of COVID-19. Video chat, phone calls, and social media apps help maintain and strengthen connections, by reminding our loved ones that they're in our thoughts on the regular, and vice versa.
participate in your Community
Consider volunteering at your local library, food bank, or animal shelter. Or, for a socially distanced option, consider pulling on disposable gloves and helping clean up the trash. The earth will thank you, as will your mind.
pick up New Hobbies
Pick up new hobbies and/or interests, like dancing, writing, craft, drawing, guitar, music, or reading. Not only will you challenge yourself in the process, which is healthy for your mind, but you can reap social benefits, too.
For instance, if you pick up reading, you can find a Facebook Group filled with people into the same genre as you. Or, if you pick up dancing, you can join an online Zoom class and immerse yourself in a whole new community. This will work wonders for your mental health.
Yes, technology has many benefits. You can binge-watch your favourite series with Netflix; order your favourite meal to your doorstep with UberEats.
But still, for the sake of your mental health, you need to get out of your house. Take a walk in your neighbourhood. Stop and smell the roses. Feel the wind on your forehead, the sun on your cheeks.
Or, you know, watch kids play, old couples hold hands, middle-aged couples fight.
Whatever tickles your fancy.
In all seriousness, get outside. Research has shown for ages now that spending time in nature relieves stress, and that sunlight boosts levels of serotonin, elevating mood.
Motivate yourself by listening to your favourite podcast or audiobook only when you're outside, or by having an accountability partner, like a friend or a coach.
In a similar tone, exercise. Physical activity improves mood in both the short and long term. The runner’s high is the best example of the impact on mood in the short term. It stems from the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-lifters.
The long-term effects include increased serotonin, which helps your brain regulate mood, appetite, and sleep.
reframe "alone time"
This is important. If you've been isolated a long time and feel, as a result, incapable of reaching out to others in this moment, that's okay.
Begin to view this period as not one of darkness or weakness, but rather one of healing. One where you're turning inward to strengthen, not crumble, so that, when you're ready, you will form the deepest connections you could possibly form, and receive more love and support than you could ever have imagined.
That's what is waiting for you.
Repeat this reframe until it sinks in. Via writing, via affirmation, via meditation, or via voicenote. Whatever works for you.
This is all true, too, mind you. This isn't a fib you need to tell yourself. Being alone has deep-seeded benefits. It allows you space to be honest with yourself, and start your journey toward toward self-love, toward self-actualization.
That said, know when enough is enough, when the time has come where you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and begin to connect.
Know that it will be a bit intimidating, but that this "fear" presenting itself is not a sign not to go forward anyway. You're supported.