Is there any room for loneliness in this age of hyper-connectivity, social media and super-gadgets that help us keep in touch? Surely, we should feel closer to others than ever before, right? Well, not necessarily. As our list of Facebook friends grows, and the virtual worlds for many are bursting at the seams, opportunities for ‘real life’ interactions are becoming fewer. We may at times find ourselves in a crowd, or surrounded by faces we know and recognise, but still experience a deep sense of loneliness. This is because the number of acquaintances we have are no substitute for the quality of relationships we develop. We need to feel cared for and feel love and regard for others in return.
The BBC recently commissioned a huge loneliness study in which 55,000 people participated across the UK. Some people spoke of feeling alone since the loss of a loved one, and how they reminisce about lost togetherness, almost every place they visit. Others shared their sense of feeling marginalised or excluded from society, due to disability. Still more of how hectic their work schedules have become, such that they no longer have time to keep up with their family or friends – or even keep up with themselves! Mental health needs can also restrict a person’s movements and confidence, leaving them isolated.
Whatever the background, it would not be too dramatic to say that loneliness has become a 21st Century epidemic. To illustrate the scale of the problem, research by the British Red Cross (2016) reports on more than 9 million people in the UK (equivalent to almost 1 in 5 people!) saying they are “always” or “often lonely”.
It’s a quiet, undetected problem, because 2 in 3 people who report loneliness, also say they don’t feel comfortable admitting to it.To say you are lonely is very difficult, perhaps even embarrassing or shaming. It may convey a sense of underdeveloped social skills, or some flaw in the relationships we have made with family or community. Or more simply, it may signal a lack of ‘get up and go’, given we could not possibly be lonely if we just joined a few groups, or left the house more. Yet, psychologically speaking, I have come to learn through working with thousands of clients over the years that the more alone we are, the less safe we feel in the world. A lack of safety leads us to be more guarded and lacking in trust. This in turn does little to draw people in and rather compounds the problem, with far reaching consequences.
That loneliness impacts on emotional health is of course obvious - it creates a sense of isolation, lack of social support and a felt disconnection from the world. Depression and anxiety are part and parcel of this experience. But research by Dr VH Murthy, former Surgeon General of the USA actually makes links between social isolation and harm to physical health. So much so that the risk factors for early death through loneliness are comparable to a person smoking 15 cigarettes per day or suffering with obesity. How may this work? Well, the immune response seems to become supressed in a person who feels persistently isolated, because one’s thoughts and feelings become caught within a perpetual “stress response”. If we are frequently on edge, have no outlet for expressing our feelings and have only superficial connections to others, it impacts directly on our cardiovascular function – raised heart rate, blood pressure and more physically tense muscles and nerves. Prolonged or repetitive experiences like this are sure to age the body prematurely, because we are after all biological machines, with all the vulnerability of becoming worn down.
On the other hand, social connection has a curative effect. We know that smiling at someone, communicating even without words and feeling another’s touch, all work to trigger the release of endorphins; the natural pain-relieving hormones of the body. Endorphins are so potent, they are sometimes called nature’s antidepressants. Further, they work closely with serotonin and dopamine systems in the brain, which are associated with feel good properties. Another chemical that becomes active is oxytocin - known increasingly as the happiness hormone. Friendships and intimacy with people with whom we share love and care, may literally save life!
In the UK, we now have a Minister for Loneliness who has been tasked with taking forward the work of the late MP Jo Cox, who was tragically killed in recent years. Jo launched a commission on loneliness and brought the issue to national awareness. The message is for us all to be more open if we are feeling lonely, by talking about it with others. We may be impacted by a significant bereavement, or the loss of our mobility, job, health or other opportunities. We may have forgotten what it feels like to laugh with someone, or just have somebody to have a meal with. We may not be able to think of anyone we could call or meet up with, if ever in need. We may be in a carer role at home, and whilst not physically alone we may lack emotional or practical support. If patterns like these have become established, it can feel hopeless. But, it is important to rediscover hope, because loneliness does not have to be a fixed or immovable reality in our lives.
With the right help, and some personal changes, we can move towards a happier and more connected way of being.