The health consequences of loneliness, and how to heal it!

How much do you really understand loneliness?

Consider two scenarios.  In the first, you are walking down a bush track, enjoying the view and stunning foliage; in solitude you are happy and fulfilled.  In the second scenario, you enter a party. You know none of the chatting, laughing guests, but are sure they would not want to know you.  Shamefaced, you go between the punchbowl and the food table, waiting until you can politely go home.

Alone versus lonely

In the first scenario, you are alone.  Aloneness here is a social fact.  In the second situation, you may be lonely, which is a subjective state of mind:  a lethal one we now know.  Studies agree that loneliness is associated with a wide range of conditions leading to premature death.  Psychologist-researchers John Cacioppo and Steven Cole have asked why chronic loneliness is so toxic for us, and the answer emerging is that the sense of isolation it brings causes us to feel threatened.  Under threat, our caveman instincts for protection kick in, elevating our stress hormone cortisol to help us prepare to defend ourselves.  That’s a survival-friendly reaction in the short term, but constant release of cortisol and other stress hormones into our system wears out our immune system over time, leaving us vulnerable to many illnesses.  Put another way, when we feel socially disconnected, our brain responds the same as if the threats were to physical safety.  Why?  We are social creatures, hard-wired to seek (safe) connection throughout life.  Feeling isolated or abandoned is like being cast out of the tribe, an experience most of our forebears did not survive.  

The health consequences of loneliness

60 million Americans, 5 million Britons, and one-third of Australians experience an alarming truth:  their loneliness makes them far more likely than their non-lonely counterparts to fall ill from all of these health risks:

• Depression and suicide

• Cardiovascular disease and stroke

• Increased stress levels

• Decreased memory and learning

• Antisocial behaviour

• Poor decision-making

• Alcoholism and drug abuse

• Alzheimer’s disease (progressing more rapidly in lonely people)

• Altered brain function 

In fact, loneliness is more of a health threat than smoking or obesity!

Healing loneliness:  Rx for action

So what can the afflicted do to remedy that sense of being an outcast?  We don’t mean occasional isolation or rejection (the state of loneliness); rather the chronic experience of it, (trait loneliness).  Most expert advice boils down to three simple steps:  (1) recognise and acknowledge loneliness for what it is – and what it does to us; (2) change the thinking patterns that are causing the pain; and (3) reach out and connect.  Let’s look at these.

1. Loneliness is a feeling, not a fact, but it is also a sign that something needs to change.  It is a painful, scary feeling and the brain is wired to pay attention to pain and danger to keep us alive.  So far, so good; we must fully acknowledge how truly dangerous for body and mind it is.  But then the brain tries to make sense of the feeling.   

2. Lonely feelings tend to confuse people into thinking that they are “losers”, “hopeless”, or “incompetent”.  Such thoughts need to change.  Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can help people learn to recognise and change the thoughts.  Best action here:  a plan to fight the mental and emotional habits of loneliness, which typically include someone squashing him/herself down and retreating, pushing others out.  Instead, if we are lonely we must . . .  

3. Reach out; find similar others.  Options abound here.  The lonely-thinking person could take a class (flower arranging or French, anyone?), volunteer to do community work, or join a sports club (tennis or kayaking?).   The beauty of this sort of outreach is that, when we join an activity or cause that we are genuinely interested in, we automatically have something in common with others doing it, thus creating a foundation for friendship.  Community service has the added benefit of satisfaction-engendering altruism.  

4. While connecting with others, focus on their needs and feelings, thus giving less attention to lonely feelings and thoughts (these can wither from lack of nurturance).  Related to this, it helps to . . . 

5. Open up.  Vulnerability, while scary, breeds closeness.  Deeper, more meaningful conversations form stronger ties.  Remember, it’s the strength of intimate connection in a safe, trusted relationship which most strongly defeats loneliness.  

6. Attempt to be interested rather than interesting.  Curiosity about others attracts them, because they are getting attention.  You will get attention in return.

7. Kindness and generosity of spirit go a long way; everyone is dealing with something.

8. Beware of the internet.  Don’t totally discount its potential, but be warned; it is easy to establish superficial, unsatisfying relationships in the cyber domain (see my last blog, about Social September).  If you are hungry for authentic relationships, it is better done face-to-face, where you have all the non-verbal clues about what is happening with another person.

9. Persist.  The first group (or individual) you try to connect  with might not be the right one for you.

10. Get a pet.  Rescuing an animal combines both altruism and companionship, plus – if you choose a dog – you can meet others who are also out walking their dogs!

Loneliness is a scourge, because we are hard-wired to connect.  It need not be permanent, however.  You can choose to reach out.  As W. H. Auden noted, “We must love one another or die.” 

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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