Coping with Loneliness

How to Find Those Crucial Connections

 

Humans are social creatures. Even the most introverted among us are wired for some connection. An evolutionary perspective suggests that it is our social groups that have ensured our survival as a species. Some suggest that loneliness is a signal to connect, just like hunger indicates that we need to eat. Our minds push us towards connection to others, which is of course more easily said than done. 

 

Many of us live in crowded cities with thousands or millions around us or in more rural areas with meeting places and organizations, and yet we can still feel lonely. Let’s explore what loneliness is, why it matters, who tends to suffer loneliness, and what we can do about it.  

 

What exactly is loneliness?

Loneliness is often described as a negative emotional state that we experience when we perceive a difference between the relationships we wish to have and those that we do have (or think we have). It is more about the quality or depth of relationships rather than quantity. Although some people may be in relationships, if those relationships are not perceived to be fulfilling or meaningful (even if the others in those relationships might feel that they are), this can trigger a sense of loneliness. 

 

Loneliness is often confused with depression. While often interrelated, loneliness is more about negative feelings regarding connection and our social world, whereas depression involves a more generalized negative feeling. Loneliness has been shown to be a predictor of depression, however, depression is not necessarily a predictor of loneliness. It is important to look below the depression to address the root cause of loneliness if that is the case. In addition, it is important to note that there is a possible genetic component to loneliness as well as environmental factors such as lack of connection and support from caregivers.

 

Adverse health effects of loneliness

Someone who suffers from loneliness can face the same health risks as someone who smokes fifteen cigarettes a day. Lonely folks are at greater risk of premature death risk factors such as obesity, inadequate physical activity, or air pollution. In older adults, loneliness is closely correlated with cognitive decline.  One study found that those of all age ranges suffering from loneliness are 30% more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those with strong support networks. As a result of all of the evidence, the World Health Organization lists “social support networks” as a social determinant of health.

 

How many?

Research done by Holt-Lunstad revealed that 22%-50% of the US population feel socially disconnected. Other studies have found that 33-61 %  of people “often,” or “very often” feel lonely, with- some may find this surprising and others may not- the highest concentration among those aged 16-24 (40%). Other research determined that 79% of Generation Z (18-22 years old) and 71% of millennials reported feeling lonely, compared with only 50% of baby boomers. 

 

Not just for those living alone

People who feel lonely are usually assumed to be living alone. In fact, one study found that only 18% of those who experienced loneliness lived alone. This means that people in relationships or living with family members or house-mates can still feel lonely. In fact some might argue that someone feeling lonely within a relationship can feel pain in a whole different way.  

In fact, people can feel lonely due to not feeling understood or feeling different than others. People who have been bullied can also feel lonely. Some people might appear sociable with people around them but might actually spend their time eating alone, not participating in events, not talking or connecting with others. 

 

Risk Factors

Most people have experienced loneliness in their lives. Sometimes it is a short-lived experience and at other times it can be much longer-lasting. Life transitions such as moving or changes in employment can trigger loneliness. Grieving, difficulties in participating in social activities as a result of financial, personal or health limitations, being isolated from family connections, culture or community, and language or cognitive barriers are all risk factors for experiencing loneliness. 

 

What are the first steps in dealing with loneliness (introspection, being kind (but honest) with yourself, don’t assume others aren’t lonely, using the time alone constructively)

 

Normalizing

One important thing to do is to talk about loneliness, which is hard to do when it is stigmatized. Psychologist John Caciopo referred to the admission of feeling lonely as “tantamount to admitting supreme human failure”. The signs that you might be lonely include

  • Increased physical aches or pains
  • Worsening of mental or physical health conditions.
  • Low energy or lack of motivation.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Loss or increase in appetite and sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs, prescription or otherwise.
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or thoughts of suicide.
  • Lacking purpose or meaning in life.
  • Keeping to oneself even in social situations.
  • Difficulty meeting new people and feeling like you don’t belong.
  • Declining social invitations.

 

What to do

 

John Cacioppo has come up with an approach to overcoming loneliness which goes by the acronym EASE, as he explained to the Atlantic:

 

E – The first E stands for “extend yourself,” but extend yourself safely. Do a little bit at a time.  While creating opportunities to connect with others provides a platform for social interaction, relieving the social pain is not so straightforward. Lonely people can have misgivings about social situations and as a result show rejecting behaviours. These can be misconstrued as unfriendliness or shyness, and people around the lonely person respond accordingly. This is how loneliness can become a persistent cycle.

 

A – The A is “have an action plan.” Recognize that it’s hard for you. Most people don’t need to like you, and most people won’t. So deal with that, it’s not a judgment of you, there are lots of things going on. Ask [other people] about themselves, get them talking about their interests.  It is work, but it is worthwhile, just like exercising is worthwhile even when you are feeling tired or lazy.

 

S – The S is “seek collectives.” People like similar others, people who have similar interests, activities, values. That makes it easier to find a synergy. Find others like you, so that you find people who understand you, your culture, your history, your experiences, your struggles, your reality. Be persistent and even if a particular group does seem to be a dead end for you, try another.

 

And finally when you do those things, 

 

E – “Expect the best.” The reason for that is to try to counteract this hyper-vigilance for social threat. Be curious, but don’t expect perfection or applause. Curiosity about others also takes your focus away from those painful feelings that tend to make you hide and sulk.

 

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email carlyle@goodforher.com or go online to www.goodforher.com