Have you ever felt so hungry only to realise that the hunger won’t go away? Your body keeps craving for more, and there is malnutrition of the mind and soul. Loneliness is a psychological parallel to this and it is a time when silence overtakes comfort. It is an escape and a refuge for you to constantly run to, where you feel there is no one to judge you and you can completely be yourself.
Loneliness cannot be confused with social isolation, which is a state of (often almost complete) lack of contact between an individual and society. Having a dampened mood perpetually, a lot of lethargy, withdrawal from others, crying for no reason, or unusual amounts of quietude can all work together to manifest into this complex emotion – loneliness.
Although, there is a catch, similar to how your body disintegrates from hunger – when you are starved and you can feel your nails snapping; where every fibre of your being is craving for food, which it cannot even digest because digestion is just agony similar is loneliness!
Emotional complexity has a lot to do with loneliness and in order to deal with it we need to understand the causes of what leads to it in the first place. Sometimes we end up in social situations, but all we feel like doing is locking ourselves up in our own cocoon, hiding ourselves away from people.
Most times, it’s hard to break free from the chains of loneliness, especially when there is hyper-vigilance surrounding it, as a result of social threat. This becomes all the more problematic because the lonelier a person becomes, the less ‘adept’ they get at dealing with social situations.
This is why they get characterised with traits such as being aloof, awkward, anti-social or even rude. There are many reasons why a person feels lonely such as having difficulties adjusting to living alone after living with a family, having poor mental or physical health, fear of rejection and thereby avoiding social situations, losing a job or not working or just the inability to face reality as it is.
There are many health risks that are associated with loneliness and some of these include decreased memory and learning abilities, inability to make rational decisions and even a change in our brain’s functioning, anti-social behaviouristic patterns, the use of drugs and other substances, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease or even stroke, no or negligible levels of exercise (self-care), a high-fat diet, irregular sleep patterns, irregular formation of cellular processes within the body which predisposes us to premature ageing.
Even in current times, as social media has helped to connect people across the globe with the use of smart technology and the use of the easy access of internet, Rachel Cohen, a psychologist from the Black Dog Institute says, “With social media we are more connected, but what is the quality of that connection? It’s the quality of our relationships that count. It’s not to say social networking is bad at all – there is plenty of positive in it – but you need to use it concurrently with face-to-face interaction. If it’s your sole mechanism for connecting with people, it’s going to feel somewhat hollow and not fulfil that basic need we have.”
“As well, a lot of people are comparing themselves to others, who are only posting their ‘highlight reel’. Even if you have just come away from a face-to-face social interaction, social media can very quickly make you feel dissatisfied with your own life and your own social engagements.”
Moreover, research has shown that there are also many other factors that also contribute to how distressed social disconnection can actually make you feel.
Although it is a very heritable trait, environmental factors such as living alone, social isolation, health issues or even death in the family or amongst friends may contribute to this feeling. It leads to feelings of sadness but many other feelings such as anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, inability to regulate stress and diminished optimism. Loneliness cannot be avoided and can never be eradicated from our society. We can’t just surround ourselves amongst people and expect loneliness to disappear We really need to have meaningful conversations and develop meaningful bonds with people.
“Some people need deep conversations, and for some that’s not it at all – it’s about bonding around something they share a common interest in,” Rachel says.
“Others just need someone to sit next to on the couch in silence and it’s comfortable. It’s about knowing what fulfils that social need for you – when do you feel your need is met?”
According to Dr Alexandra Solomon, a Chicago based clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University; we instinctively know how to avoid loneliness. “The cure for loneliness is basically coming home to our default setting, our natural essence, the way that we really are wired to be,” she says. “We don’t have to learn something new to fight loneliness. We have to remember something forgotten.”
Even the shiny ones on social media endure loneliness at some point of time or the other. Times have changed though. “In this digital age, we’re chronically impatient,” Dr Solomon sighs.
Note: the Black Dog Institute is a world leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.