It seems incomprehensible: the planet has more than 6 billion people, we have access to numerous gadgets that help keep up connected with others, social networking sites are booming, and yet a high percentage of people experience feeling lonely all–or nearly all–of the time. That includes people who have hundreds or thousands of “friends” on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Loneliness in this modern world is epidemic, and even worse, it can kill.
Psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann wrote about loneliness and said that at its core, it is the desire for intimacy.
As social creatures, we crave meaningful, intimate interactions with other people with whom we can feel safe and share our thoughts and desires. We don’t need a lot of such relationships-loneliness is about quality, not quantity-so having two or three good friends makes all the difference in the world.
Loneliness and Health
A 2013 article in New Republic called loneliness “a public health crisis,” a claim that may be supported by research from psychobiologists, who have reported that loneliness can be associated with a variety of emotional and physical diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, neurodegenerative diseases, and obesity.
For example, an early experiment by a pioneer of loneliness research, University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, involved three groups of college undergraduates: the non-lonely, the sometimes lonely, and the lonely. Cacioppo’s team monitored the volunteers using various biosensors and lab tests. An analysis of their collected data revealed that students who had bodily symptoms of distress (high stress hormone levels, poor sleep) were the ones who were unhappy because they did not have close friends. These individuals also had poorer vascular resistance, a condition that contributes to high blood pressure. If this condition continues, it can lead to heart disease and death.
More recently, Cacioppo explained how loneliness interferes with sleep, executive functioning (the ability to make decisions and develop plans), and both physical and mental well-being, all of which “contribute to higher rates of morbidity and mortality in lonely older adults.” His research also has indicated that loneliness can change your genes, or “what genes are turned on and off in ways that help prepare the body for assaults, but that also increase the stress and aging on the body.”
- Experts have shown that loneliness increases our risk of dying an early death by 45 percent and of developing dementia by 64 percent.
- The loneliest people experience cognitive decline about 20 percent faster than people who are not lonely.
- Loneliness and feeling depressed because of loneliness were found to be a bigger concern among 18- to 34-year-olds than among folks older than 55, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
- While Facebook and other social media can be helpful, they also can worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness. According to Dr. Grant Blank at the Oxford Internet Institute, social media are not beneficial when they replace face-to-face interaction. He has noted that “People present an idealized version of themselves online and we expect to have social lives like those portrayed in the media,” and such comparisons can cause people to withdraw and feel more isolated.
- The results of the UCLA loneliness scale administered to 120 young adults (60 men and 60 women) revealed that nearly two-thirds (62.5%) of the respondents expressed moderate to severe loneliness and that males reported more loneliness than females.
How to Beat Loneliness
There’s a difference between temporary (situational) and chronic feelings of loneliness. According to psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, MD, who co-authored The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, “one of the ways that situational loneliness [divorce, retirement, moving] can become chronic is precisely because of the shame we feel about our loneliness-the sense we have of being a loser.” Thus individuals who are unable to rebound from a situation or loss can fall into a chronic state of feeling lonely and try to hide it because they are ashamed.
If you are experiencing loneliness:
- Recognize and acknowledge your loneliness. The more you try to conceal your feelings of isolation, the worse they will become. Acknowledging your loneliness is a critical first step toward recovering.
- Understand that loneliness is harming your body and mind. These feelings have the power to take over your entire well-being, but once you realize it, you can begin to take the steps needed to regain control.
- Take action. This can be challenging and frightening, but once you take the first step, the rest of them will be easier. Begin with something that feels safe and familiar to you. If you enjoy music, join a chorus. Book discussion groups, amateur sports teams, church and spiritual groups, and community classes are other options. Many people find that volunteering for a cause they believe in allows them to meet people with similar values and thus expands their social opportunities and eases loneliness.
- Consider professional help. Talking with a therapist can help you build trust in yourself and others and relieve feelings of depression and anxiety.
- Remember: quality, not quantity. It’s possible to feel loneliness while in a crowded room just like it’s easy to feel alone even though you may have hundreds or thousands of “friends” or “likes” or “followers.” Having one or several people you can trust and talk to is priceless compared with a sea of faceless virtual “friends.”
If you know someone who is living with loneliness:
- Connect with them regularly via a phone call or in person, not a text or email. Speaking with someone is much more personal and warm than a digital message.
- If you leave a message and don’t get a return call, call again.
- Schedule non-threatening activities, such as a walk or getting together at a café for a cup of coffee.
- Be a good listener. People who are suffering with feelings of loneliness need to know that someone is hearing what they are saying and not judging them.
- Realize that you may be the only one this person connects with on any given day. Your efforts are appreciated!
Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S. Social relationships and health: the toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2014 Feb 1; 8(2): 58-72
Everyday Health. Loneliness can really hurt you
Mental Health Foundation. The lonely society
New Republic. The lethality of loneliness
Perissinotto CM et al. Loneliness in older persons. Archives of Internal Medicine 2012; 172(14): 1078-84
Psychology Today. The loneliness panic.
Srivastava N, Agarwal S. Loneliness among young adults: a comparative study. European Academic Research 2014 Jun; 1(3)