Loneliness is very relatable. We have all had moments of feeling lonely. Maybe it was for a few hours or a day. There are those, however, who experience extended periods of loneliness for months if not years. While this condition is not recognized as a medical problem or documented as a psychiatric condition in the DSM, it is incredibly debilitating and can be detrimental to one’s physical health. At the very least, it makes life unpleasant and, in moments for some, unbearable.
“Health risks associated with social isolation have been compared in magnitude to the well-known dangers of smoking cigarettes and obesity (House 2001). Individuals who lack social connections or report frequent feelings of loneliness tend to suffer higher rates of morbidity and mortality (Brummett et al. 2001; Seeman 2000; Uchino, Cacioppo, and Kiecolt-Glaser 1996), as well as infection (Cohen et al. 1997; Pressman et al. 2005), depression (Heikkinen and Kauppinen 2004), and cognitive decline (Barnes et al. 2004;Wilson et al. 2007).” (excerpt from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756979/)
From the New York Times article, “How Social Isolation is Killing Us”:
“Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.”
“A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.”
“Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.” (Given how much time and effort we spend on extending our lives with supplements and exercise, why isn’t anyone selling a cure for loneliness?)
“Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.”
Loneliness can occur even if one is not literally alone. We may be surrounded by people in a home, at work, in life, and still feel incredibly alone. I personally have struggled with this condition my entire life, and I can attest to the physical and emotional pain it evokes as well as the mental torment. It is hard to explain mostly because people will argue that you are not alone and should not feel that way. Lonely people learn to be quiet very quickly.
There are reasons, beyond the obvious, why someone might feel alone or isolated in the world. We want to raise awareness of the dangers of loneliness, it’s prevalence, and to introduce the idea that it might be treatable. It is not hopeless.
Here is a list of people that may find themselves feeling isolated and lonely (this is by no means meant to be exhaustive):
- Highly Gifted People
- Highly Sensitive People
- Empathic People
- Introverted People
- Highly Spiritual People
- The Socially Challenged – This is more of a catch all for people who suffer from social anxiety, depression, expressive and receptive language disorders, slow processing, working memory problems, trouble with facial recognition, and difficulty interpreting social cues.
Now it might be tempting to jump to the conclusion that these people lack social skills or have fewer peers from which to choose. This may be true and may contribute to loneliness. If you know me, I always am looking to the research to see what it is saying. And here is what I found (also from the NY Times article):
“New research suggests that loneliness is not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support, but can be caused in part by unusual sensitivity to social cues. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively, and enter a self-preservation mind-set — worsening the problem. In this way, loneliness can be contagious: When one person becomes lonely, he withdraws from his social circle and causes others to do the same…Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has tested various approaches to treat loneliness. His work has found that the most effective interventions focus on addressing “maladaptive social cognition” — that is, helping people re-examine how they interact with others and perceive social cues.”
This is incredibly hopeful! This means that we have something to work with to help those who are lonely. And given our statistics and the drastic impacts of loneliness, we as a society should be offering help! So, what to do…
Working on maladaptive social cognition sounds ominous, however, if we become aware that we are not responding appropriately to social cues, we can learn new ways to respond! This should evoke a sigh of relief. My issue is I take every little look, posture, noise, and comment, deeply personally. (This is a product of my upbringing and my genetic wiring.) I am, by nature, a very sensitive, empathic, introverted, spiritual, gifted person (I tick all the boxes, even poor facial recognition.). I NEED to learn how to not take things so personally. I think I wrote a blog post on that.
How others behave and speak to me does not define who I am or how I should feel. I need to look inside to my wise, grounded self for that information. We tend to develop these habits of how we respond to others at a very young age. We don’t even know we are doing it. That is why having a partner to help you uncover your maladaptive strategies is critical. Coaches and specially trained therapists are great partners who can help you with this process in a loving and nonjudgmental way.
I cannot stress this enough. This is sensitive work because we are sensitive people. Work with someone with whom you feel very safe. I can personally attest that it is very difficult to discover our habitual ways of responding to others without an objective observer helping.
As much as I have worked on my feelings of not fitting in, not belonging, feeling alone in the world, feeling not understood, feeling unlovable, I still struggle every now and then. It is getting better. That is why I continue to work on these core issues. Loneliness is unhealthy and unhappy. Please, help others with your patience and compassion and help yourself with the same.