The Loneliness Epidemic Can Be Cured

June 4, 2018

As we edge into the Australian winter months, it often means extended time spent indoors and for many, a feeling or sense of loneliness.  In 2001 Robert Putman published a best seller “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” on how ‘society changes are driving new levels of isolation and alienation’ and today researchers warn we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.

It poses a serious physical risk that can lead to premature death.  Insufficient social connection is a bigger risk factor than obesity and is equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University said “it is only getting worse”.

Loneliness causes serious hurt, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain. Recent studies have also revealed that the subjective feeling of loneliness, the internal experience of disconnection or rejection, is at the heart of the problem whether we are young, old, married or single, urban-dwelling or living in remote mountain villages, although remote villagers are much less likely to be lonely. One study found, that those with fewer than three people they could confide in, and count on for social support, were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those with more confidants.

What is loneliness, as it is not simply about being alone. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of ‘Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’ stated that “many of us crave solitude, which feels restorative and peaceful when desired”, however it “can be misery for others”. Loneliness is “a debilitating psychological condition characterised by a deep sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of control and personal threat.  

It appeared that loneliness and depression go hand in hand and feed off each other. However it doesn’t mean they are the only triggers for each other, but loneliness can lead to an increase in depressive symptoms and increased stress, anxiety and even anger. The pain of isolation can make us more likely to lash out at the people we feel alienated from and more likely to fight others than hug them, a type of “short term self-preservation that includes an increase in implicit vigilance for social threats”.

Further psychological studies focused on the number of people in a patient’s network and looked at both objective social isolation and subjective loneliness. They found it to be a perceptual state that depended more on the quality of a person’s relationships than on the sheer number. People with few friends can feel fulfilled and people with vast social networks can feel empty and disconnected. “It is all about how the person feels” says LeRoy in her research and “feelings really matter”.

Not all people suffer the same sense of loneliness and not all feelings of isolation are created equally. Once we have pinpointed a particular type of experience it may be easier to address that experience.

According to results from various researchers, loneliness may be complex, but there are a number of ways to fight it and protect ourselves:

  • DO talk to strangers – small talk and just chatting to someone beside you on the bus or in a store can make us feel better.
  • Give it seven minutes – as it takes that long to know if a conversation is going to be interesting or not.
  • Schedule face time – face to face contact with friends and family gives us what virtual communication lacks. Our endorphins increase and enhance well-being with inter-person interaction.
  • It you can’t get face time use Facetime – being there in person is always best but video conferencing can help people who are divided by distance to maintain the bond. Phone calls are the next best thing.
  • Use Facebook wisely – social media is not inherently alienating, but should be used purposefully to create sustainable connections.
  • Be a good neighbour – higher neighbourhood social cohesion creates a happier and healthier environment for increased well being.
  • Throw a dinner party – eating together, sharing food, is a form of social glue and dates back to at least 12,000 years as a way to resolve conflicts and create a group identity.    
  • Get creative – participating in creative arts by joining a group helps us to connect deeply without talking directly about ourselves and allows each other to resonate with their own experience.
  • Talk about it – talking about your feelings can make you feel less lonely and you soon find out how many people feel the same way.
  • Reach out and touch someone, literally –  physical touching such as hugging, holding hands or even just patting someone on the back is powerful medicine and cues our brain to release oxytocin and lower stress response which helps strengthen social bonds.

For people who have a sense of loneliness it is important for their physical and emotional well being to reconnect and make meaningful contact. Conversations by text or Facebook messenger may be filled with happy emojis, but they can leave us feeling empty and lack depth. You need to do something for this to change and it can change with positive outcomes if you are willing to try.

Acknowledgement: Psychology Today, The Loneliness Cure.

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