Loneliness; a 21st century epidemic
A study by Relate in 2014, claimed five million people have no real friends. However, this picture of loneliness is too simplistic. It is perfectly possible to feel lonely, even when surrounded by people. Many of us have experienced that sense of isolation, misunderstanding and disconnection, even when surrounded by friends and family.
Loneliness hurts. It is painful and alarming to our sense of self. Loneliness makes you feel invisible and therefore diminishes your self-identity. Connection with others validates who we are; otherwise do we even exist? Science suggests that our brain’s change when we experience prolonged loneliness. We become more abrasive and defensive; our brain’s go into self-preservation mode. We become more sensitive to criticism and brush off compliments. The world is perceived as hostile and unwelcoming.
Some roles appear to precipitate loneliness, for example, it is often said, it’s lonely at the top. Senior managers often carry many responsibilities; a weight that can be heavy to bear.
Transitional life events can also precipitate loneliness: Leaving home for the first time; starting a new job; death of a loved one; moving to a new country. These transitional events are characterised by feeling unsettled by new environments and on the periphery of established social circles. Of course over time and with some effort, new friends are made and new environments become familiar.
The final type of loneliness is probably one of the most painful; being in a relationship with someone who has stopped communicating; thus severing shared connections that once bound you together.
Loneliness is challenging to alleviate, and there remains a stigma about admitting to it. Maybe because we’re always told that humans are social animals who thrive on connections with others. Admitting you’re not connecting suggests failure at a fundamental level.
And yet every one experiences periods of loneliness.
However, sustained and prolonged loneliness is deeply detrimental to our health at a psychological and physical level, as it increases the likelihood of mental health pathologies.
But what can you do to alleviate loneliness? In the first instance, it’s helpful to identify what type of loneliness you’re suffering from. For example, is your loneliness predominately driven by your lack of physical proximity to others and contact with ‘like-minded’ people. Or, alternatively, is your loneliness driven by feeling disconnected from those closest to you? The latter suggests your experience of loneliness is a symptom of a bigger underlying problem.
The next step, and maybe the hardest step to take, is to reach out and seek support. Talk to a trusted friend or professional. The biggest irony to all of this, is we all live in a digital era of 24/7 connection and yet many of us feel lonelier than ever.
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About Lorraine Green
Lorraine is a therapist with practices based in London and Brighton. She has worked as a counsellor for several mental health charities and has experience of a wide range of mental health issues.