Loneliness is a common experience experienced by people of all ages, gender, race, country, job, and income. Blackdog Institute describes loneliness as “that negative feeling that arises when our social needs are unmet by the quantity and quality of our current social relationships”. Some people have a hard time making friends and connecting to others in a meaningful way, and struggle with feelings of loneliness as a result. This article is about some common reasons people feel lonely and possible ways to cope.
Being alone vs. being lonely
There is a persistent misconception that people are lonely because they are alone. It is important to understand that there is a difference between feeling lonely and being alone. Feeling lonely is that uncomfortable empty feeling that can be accompanied by sadness and that loss of connection with others feeling. It may surprise you to know that this loneliness feeling can be experienced in a crowded room full of other people. In other words, you do not have to be by yourself in order to feel lonely. Whereas being alone is spending time by yourself without the company of others, however in this situation a person may feel quite content and peaceful in their own company. Have you ever looked at these people feeling so happy, joyous and peaceful spending time on their own and scratched your head and wonder how in the world they can do that? A person can also be alone and feel lonely. Whether or not we feel lonely comes down to, not how many friends we have, but our subjective perception of the quality of those relationships.
Common Reasons of Loneliness
There are cultural and societal pressures to be married and have children by a certain age which can be overwhelming. Often, the toughest challenges of being single comes from within; that lack of contentment with being single. One of the risks of internalising the beliefs and pressures of others is when you start making life choices based on those feelings. This can happen when the internalised pressure to marry and have children mixes with the feelings of loneliness and fear that go hand in hand with being single, and then you end up being in a relationship, married, or having kids out of that discomfort with being single.
People can be single without feeling lonely, and often are. This is especially the case as more and more people are actually choosing to be single or to not marry, especially in Western countries like America and Australia. When you have strong family ties and friendships, you generally aren’t bothered by being single. When you’re both feeling lonely and single, then it’s much harder to ignore the pressure of external expectations.
On the flip side, it is estimated that about 60% of married people also report feeling lonely. This is mainly as the relationship starts to become more stale and monotonous and/or lack of shared feelings and connection. Again, it comes back to not whether we are with someone or by ourselves, but our quality of connection to other people and also our connection with ourselves.
Replacing real connection with technology
In a world where we are all constantly connected by technology like smartphones, tablets, TV’s and out goes the door the old “six degrees of separation”, you would expect that we would feel much more connected to people and less lonely. However, the more we are connected to others via technology, the more disconnected we actually become from others. That might not make sense right? However, look back on your socialisation over the past 10 years and reflect on how much of your catch ups with people now don’t happen in person anymore because you just connect over technology instead. This is most likely going to vary depending on your age range though. If you’re in your elder years then you probably don’t engage much with technology still, however if you’re in your younger years where you’ve known technology most of your life, then you probably won’t have that change in face to face connection to really compare with.
Feelings of loneliness can stem from having been rejected or abused in the past. This includes being made fun of or lied to, being abandoned or rejected by family and friends, or being insulted. To protect themselves from verbal and psychological assaults, people develop defensive walls, and these often involve shutting everybody out – not only people who can harm them, but also people whom can help them. There have been people in these individuals’ lives who have helped, but these same people have harmed them, so they shut everybody out indiscriminately.
Losing or missing someone
We all have times in our lives where we feel the need to have special people close to us, and when that special someone leaves, it can bring about intense feelings of loneliness. Relationship break-ups can be really difficult to get through and deal with. Having that person there with you and for you day in and day out to then no longer having that person there anymore can cause immense loneliness, especially if you were still in love with the person when you broke up. Losing a loved one through death is also similar in no longer having that loved one close to you, to spend time with, to support you anymore.
Not fitting in
People whom struggle with chronic loneliness can often feel like they don’t fit in anywhere with no body to connect to in a meaningful way, if at all. And if they feel different to other people in ways where they struggle to relate to others or they feel other people don’t understand them, this can make that feeling of loneliness worse. In some cases, the desire to fit in may extend to being admired and looked up to. When we feel included amongst and accepted by other people, we can feel more connected to others and thus less lonely. Thus people may try to change themselves in order to fit in with others.
The Dangers of Loneliness
In adults, loneliness is a major factor in many health problems. It increasingly appears to be the cause of many medical problems, some of which take many years to show up. Studies show that loneliness works in some very surprising ways to undermine mental health. One study at the University of Chicago indicated that doctors provided better or more complete medical care to patients with close relatives, who were not socially isolated. Such people were also less likely to suffer from illness.
Living alone increases the risk of suicide in all age groups. Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress when exposed to the same stressors as people who are not lonely, and they feel stressed out even when they are relaxing.
When lonely people do interact socially, they don’t benefit from as many positive effects as others. Their relationships fail to act as a buffer from stress as they should.
Loneliness leads to lower quality of sleep. It provides less physical and psychological relief. Lonely people wake up more often at night and sleep less.
Finally, loneliness has been linked to higher blood pressure and higher levels of circulating stress hormones. It compromises the regulation of the circulatory system, leading the heart muscle to work harder, and blood flow turbulence damages blood vessels.
Coping with Loneliness
I’ve listed some tips to help you cope with loneliness below.
Make a plan
The first part of making a plan is to identify your “peak” loneliness hours. For most people, they’re in the evenings, on weekends, or – you guessed it – holidays. Make a plan in advance for these hours or days so that you have activities to do with or around other people. Arrange get-togethers with friends or family. Go to a concert, museum, or go for a hike, or connect with people on social activities sites like Meetup.com where they offer a wide range of activities in all cities around the world. Even a Skype chat is better than having no plan at all. Plan some movies to watch or songs or soundtracks to listen to. Go to a yoga class, join a health club, or take up a new and exciting hobby.
Identify your loneliness triggers
Certain thoughts can trigger loneliness. They are often unconscious thoughts. These are things like, “I will always be alone”, “No one will ever want to be with me” and “I can’t stand feeling lonely.” Millions of people have these thoughts. You can cope by making a conscious effort to replace them with rational thoughts. Examples: “There are people whom would want to spend time with me – I just need to put myself out there, or ask people I already know”, “That I am alone right now doesn’t mean that I am lonely and that no one wants to spend time with me.” You can also change your perception – that the time on your own is not loneliness, but an opportunity for solitude, to learn how to be comfortable in your own company. You can do whatever you want – read something interesting, make your favorite dish, listen to your own music, watch your favourite movie, or go to the theatre. Everyone gets lonely once in a while. Loneliness is a situation, and the good thing is that situations can and do change as everything is always only ever temporary.
You don’t need someone else to do something you enjoy
If only I got a dollar every time I heard someone say, “I have no one to do stuff with.” You don’t need someone else to go for a walk, go to the gym or the beach or take up a new hobby. The reason people don’t want to do these things alone is usually because they feel self-conscious and so want a safety person with them so they feel more secure in that social setting. They are afraid other people will think negatively about them. How do you know what others will think? And why does it matter? Doing something alone might actually be a good way to meet new people. If you like cooking, why don’t you take a cooking class? It’ll be a great way to meet like-minded people.
Be more considerate of yourself
People who suffer from loneliness tend to think they are dependent on others for love, compassion and acceptance. Why don’t you try directing these thoughts and feelings toward yourself? Buy yourself a present or make yourself something nice to eat (preferably something healthy – rather than binge eat) Direct loving thoughts toward yourself by giving yourself the support you need to be who you are. Be your best friend – we should all try doing something nice for the person we love the most!
Nurture a community of connectedness
We all need some connection with other people. Humans are social animals. A great way to find one is by doing volunteer work, because we all have a need to be appreciated. You can search online in your community for organisations that work with kids, older people, the poor or sick people. You can’t feel lonely when you are busy taking care of someone.
Spend time with people
The more you isolate yourself, the lonelier you’ll get. Social media is not a good substitute for real, face-to-face communication. Contact a friend, relative or acquaintance or join an organisation that corresponds to your interests — outdoors, fitness, social, cultural, business, etc. Also, when spending time with people, try to open yourself up and communicate about your thoughts, feelings and views. This will help to foster a more intimate connected relationship with that person.
A pet will make you feel less lonely if you are able to have a pet at your home. People experience a very deep connection with their pets which can help to reduce that feeling of loneliness and isolation. If having your own pet is not an option, you could go to your local animal shelter and offer to volunteer.
Realise loneliness is more common than you think
A Chicago University study found the number of people who report feeling lonely has increased by 50% in the last two decades. Maybe this increase can be accounted for by the decline of family connections, people moving more often, higher divorce rates, less frequent participation in social and community organisations, and of course increase in technology engagement replacing face-to-face interaction.
Loneliness is widespread, and it is becoming more and more common. Many people feel lonely, but they don’t show it, which can make you feel like it is just you that feels so lonely. This can make you feel even lonelier. What may surprise you is that you probably don’t show it either.
As common as loneliness may be, we have to recognise the need for strategies to deal with loneliness and improve connection. Being alone doesn’t mean you have to feel lonely, and feeling lonely doesn’t mean you are going to feel that way forever. Loneliness is a transient emotion. It will pass. When? That depends on your thoughts and actions.
If you are still struggling with loneliness, therapy can be a very effective way to deal with persistent feelings of loneliness. Contact our clinic today to discuss how our Clinical Psychologist, Ashley Gilmour can help you work through your loneliness.