We all feel lonely from time to time, especially at special times of the year like Christmas, when we imagine everyone is having a great time with family and friends and we are not.
Sometimes even in a crowd or in a relationship we feel really alone and unseen. But loneliness is different from being a loner or a really private person – it’s a feeling of isolation. The fact that we don’t have the amount of real connection and contact with people we want causes us to feel some emotional pain. For some it’s a low flat feeling that something isn’t right but for others it’s an intense feeling of deprivation and pain. As always, we are all individual, and how we feel our loneliness depends on our own coping mechanisms and the reasons behind why we feel that way.
There are a whole host of reasons why we feel lonely, such as our work has become our priority, we have lost someone we love, or we have other issues that make us withdraw from those around us and sadly as we get older there are less people we know who we can reach out to. But humans are designed to be connected and in a relationship with others. Its part of our reptilian brain i.e. we are born with it because we needed others to survive when we lived in tribes. This part of our brain also holds other basic emotions like anger and fear.
For some loneliness is connected with self-esteem. Our low self-esteem makes us feel we have nothing to offer to others, we don’t have the skills to interact with them or we don’t deserve other people’s time. This in turn leads to even lower self-esteem and a vicious circle is created. This takes a lot of work for us to breakdown.
Lonely people often have experienced some form of trauma or loss in their lives. They have experienced a lack of support at some key point in their lives or had an upbringing that was harsh and critical. Being brought up to believe that reaching out to others, or even asking to be with others, is a sign of weakness, along with an expectation that others know we feel alone can make loneliness almost inevitable.
Loneliness is really bad for our physical and mental health.
Physically prolonged loneliness can lead to an increased susceptibility to heart disease caused by stress without support or a weaker immune system as when we are lonely we produce more inflammation-related proteins in response to stress. The brain reacts differently when we are lonely. It processes the lonely feelings in a similar way it processes danger and threat which is by heightening our cortisol when we wake and not letting it drop throughout the day. This leads to physical pains in the stomach, weight gain, insomnia and diabetes. Add to that the fact we are more liable to not prioritise our self-care when we are lonely. So not wanting to cook for just one, or being physically inactive, can result in loneliness seriously compromising our physical well-being.
Mental health is also affected by loneliness as depression is common when we are lonely. We feel unhappy, isolated, in pain and turn those feelings inwards.
The brain reacts differently when we are lonely. It processes the lonely feelings in a similar way it processes danger and threat which is by heightening our cortisol when we wake and not letting it drop throughout the day.
Loneliness is associated with the risk of dementia as loneliness is associated with loss of cognition in old age.
Addiction is often used when we feel in so much pain that we pick a substance to dull the edges which leads to a substance to blot out all of our feelings of being alone.
Bereavement causes loneliness as we mourn the loss of someone close and acutely feel their absence. It is part of the recovery process to feel lonely after a loss, but we can get stuck there which prevents our recovery or we find ourselves being depressed.
Loneliness is associated with a variety of personality disorders including borderline personality disorder and schizoid personality disorder. If we have borderline personality disorder we often cannot tolerate loneliness and this will make our other symptoms worse. Loneliness is thought to be part of the development of schizoid personality disorder too as a lack of connectedness and feeling of insecurity leads to an inability to feel happy in a relationship as the feelings have been distorted by early experiences of loneliness.
Finally, loneliness is a key cause of suicide as the spiral of feeling alone, self-hatred, blame for this and no end to it takes its toll on our mental health. Suicide can become an option to make it simply end.
What can we do?
- Loneliness occurs when we become passive, stuck and we don’t do anything including acknowledging how we feel. So, we need to acknowledge we feel bad and express it. Write it down, draw it, find songs to represent it, or do whatever it takes to express it. Keep a diary about where, when and what you feel and notice the patterns as the more we know about ourselves the easier it is for us to change.
- Take action. If we miss someone we should tell them, if we need support we should ask for it, if we don’t feel good we should make sure someone is aware of it. If we are grieving and feel stuck look for specialist support when it’s time to move.
- If our self-esteem is preventing us from reaching out then we have to find a talking therapy to suit us to discuss this.
- There are befriending schemes out there to get help from or to volunteer for.
- Use technology to make connections that can then lead to face to face interactions e.g. netmums, age concern
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