How can we learn to cope and reconnect meaningfully with others?
Loneliness affects us all sometimes, but the consequences of ongoing disconnection can be damaging.
Chronic loneliness is something many people live with, or live in fear of. Despite living in a world that’s more connected than ever before, with social media always at our fingertips, we’re also lonelier than we’ve ever been. Many of us have even maintained unhealthy relationships or toxic friendships out of fear of being alone. However, loneliness isn’t always simply about being companionless.
Psychologist Guy Winch, PhD, explains during his TEDxLinnaeusUniversity talk, Why We All Need to Practise Emotional First Aid: ‘Loneliness is defined purely subjectively. It depends solely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you.’
Loneliness is a state of mind – one that can be difficult to tackle.
Solitude vs loneliness
According to Karen Turis, Integrative Body Therapist at the Oxford Healthcare Retreat, solitude can be a necessary, sacred and nurturing experience; a space where ‘alone’ literally means ‘all one’. Conversely, loneliness is a feeling that can pervade our lives even while we’re constantly surrounded by others. However, she clarifies: ‘A lonely moment or day is very different from a feeling of constant isolation and disconnectedness, or of being unacknowledged.’
In their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (WW Norton & Co), John T Cacioppo and William Patrick explain that transient loneliness is a natural state of being and something we accept as a normal part of life. A constant state of loneliness, however, is different in that it represents the complete absence of something we require on a deep social and biological level – according to Cacioppo and Patrick, people consistently
rank love and intimacy above fame, wealth and even physical wellbeing. We have a strong physiological need for
meaningful connection and leaving this need unmet can cause us great distress.
Thanks to technology, we’ve never been more connected than we are today. We can easily and instantly communicate with vast numbers of people across the globe, so why are we this lonely?
According to Karen, we’re experiencing information-induced fatigue; we’re overwhelmed and exhausted from the sheer volume of information that we engage with daily in the digital age. By the end of a working day, we’re too worn down to reach out and make meaningful connections with friends and family, needing time to recuperate from
In our weary, information-saturated state, we tend to turn to the ‘easier’ option to try to meet our needs: social media. Scrolling through miles of Twitter or Instagram feeds while lying on the couch in your pyjamas certainly seems less taxing than putting on make-up and going out into the world, or sitting down to have an in-depth conversation with a friend or partner.
Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to forgoing meaningful connection that we’ve actually become addicted to the instant gratification which social media promises. ‘The very nature of interacting on social media has our dopamine feedback loop buzzing. It has an addictive quality and although it’s all about connecting, those connections are more superficial,’ explains Karen. Time spent on social media not only keeps us from pursuing face-to-face interaction, but fosters a false sense of companionship which can never satisfy the deep need we have for true acknowledgement. All this ‘connection’ can actually translate into a greater sense of loneliness. ‘Our nervous systems are all about relating, connecting and interacting, and this happens when we see other people, talk to other people, hear other people, smell and feel the presence of other people,’ adds Karen.
Social media is a poor substitute and – used excessively – can even be extremely harmful. ‘Scientific studies have shown that there’s a link between the amount of time spent on social media and the likelihood of suffering from
depression. Research also suggests that children who’re constantly on social media or have many hours of screen time per day are growing up lacking the social skills required to become an emotionally healthy adult,’ she says.
Learning to reconnect
If you’re feeling lonely, Karen suggests taking stock of the people in your life – who have you surrounded yourself with? You may become truly grateful for the friends and family who make up your ‘inner circle’, however small that may be. Equally, you may realise that you’re often in the company of people to whom you don’t relate, which could motivate you to begin investing less of your time and expectations in them and, instead, cultivating relationships with individuals who genuinely share your values. Focus on these people and make time to talk to them, listen to their stories and tell them your own.
Winch also stresses the importance of recognising unhealthy psychological habits and breaking them, especially the tendency to ruminate on past upsetting events. ‘The problem is that the urge to ruminate can be really strong, so it’s a
difficult habit to break. By taking action when you’re lonely, changing your responses to failure, protecting your self-esteem and battling negative thinking, you won’t just heal your psychological wounds – you’ll also build emotional resilience. You’ll thrive,’ he says.
Karen says it’s equally important to avoid getting caught in looping emotions, as this is when physical and mental pathologies creep in. ‘Emotions should be fleeting, just as they are for children’, she says. Put down your phone, laptop or tablet and start to wean yourself off social media. Try muting notifications and deleting social media apps from your phone to limit your screen time. Move your focus towards face-to-face interaction, even if you start small. ‘Go to your local greengrocer, buy your fresh fruit and veggies and have a chat with whoever else is there. Leave the big supermarkets alone. Find your own village in your city. Join a community, sign up to do volunteer work. Reach out to people.’
Most importantly, adds Karen, work on accepting your life situation and yourself. Once you’re at peace with where and who you are, shifting your focus onto something external will help you let go of loneliness.
The true cost of loneliness
Loneliness is self-perpetuating, as Winch explains. ‘Loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do.’ Feeling cut-off means there’s more time for destructive thought processes such as rumination to set in, which can lead to depression, adds Karen.
Besides undermining mental wellness, loneliness is also hazardous to physical health. According to Cacioppo and Patrick, social isolation has an impact on health comparable with high blood pressure, lack of exercise and smoking, and can result in faster ageing and higher levels of stress hormones, as well as problems with immune function and cardiovascular health. They also note that the same area of the brain which registers physical pain is activated when
experiencing rejection and loneliness. Winch declares that according to research, ‘chronic loneliness increases your
likelihood of an early death by 14%’.
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