Loneliness: recognise & address it

While we have been talking about relationships and intimacy in many of our blog posts, the reality is that many of us have felt lonely in our lives, if not right at this moment. But loneliness is not the opposite of being with people or in relationship with others; rather, it is an aspect of the human condition and of our relationships that needs to be managed. In today’s Therapists Thoughts post, Centre therapist Laura Kelly-Walsh shares with us a thoughtful piece on a topic that seems to touch too many of us and creates so many problems in society.

We all suffer the symptoms of loneliness at some point in our lives – cue checking our phones, working, shopping, or whatever our chosen distraction may be. Mental health doesn’t just mean absence of anxiety and depression, it encapsulates a high quality of life, and loneliness can have a serious negative impact on this. It might be harder for us to say, “I feel lonely”, than to say, “I feel depressed.”

Loneliness isn’t just about being alone, but more to do with the quality and richness of our relationships.

As Olivia Laing points out in The Lonely City: “Loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by sheer willpower or by simply getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections. Once [loneliness] becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.”

Desire for connection is wired deep in our DNA – from birth, a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is vital for personal development. You might be quite happy to potter around the house on your own, but we, as human beings, are generally happier in the company of others in a communal environment.

Being alone isn’t in itself a prescription for loneliness. Philosopher Paul Tillich said language created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone — and it created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone. But it’s still true that anything that causes people to be alone creates a risk of loneliness in a percentage of the population. The catalyst could be job loss, a break up, or a bereavement. Suffering the loss of a loved one, particularly if you were close, can trigger a cascade of feelings of loneliness. You may feel the relationship cannot be replaced, but lest we forget, there is always potential for new ones to blossom.

Health Implications

We need to take loneliness seriously because it is a health hazard, more harmful than physical inactivity and obesity, as bad for you as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, warn experts.

Our bodies see loneliness as a mortal threat — and this threat-sensitivity makes our bodies work differently. Research suggests that a key anti-viral response deeply suppressed in lonely people was not present in non-lonely people. And to make matters worse, another block of genes to do with inflammation was greatly activated. This inflammation fuels disease processes in a host of devastating illnesses, including atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Take Action

In order to feel connected we need to feel seen, heard and valued. Social researchers have found that people that live the longest and happiest lives are the people that nurture relationships. They prioritise connection. They focus on relationships. Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly”, suggests that “when we allow ourselves to be seen — when we admit our fears or self-doubt, for example — we connect with others and in turn give them permission to be themselves. In sharing our fears and insecurities, we find true relationships.”

We all have challenges in life, any of which are shared by those around us. I wonder if we stopped trying to emphasise what makes us different from, and better than everyone else, and instead focus on what we all have in common, would we feel a lot less alone.

We all know it’s hard to find close connections as adults. We are still biologically fine-tuned to being with each other. The stress we experience from chronic loneliness makes us age quicker and our immune systems weaker. Physical and social pain use common mechanisms in your brain, both feel like a threat and so social pain leads to defensive behaviour. When loneliness becomes chronic, our brains go into self-preservation mode, sensing most things as threats, and danger everywhere. You may pay more attention to others, but understand them less. The part of our brain which recognises facial expressions becomes out of tune, making us distrustful of others.

Try to first recognise the vicious cycle you may be trapped in

The outside world may become the way you feel about it. If you start to turn down invitations from friends, they’ll start to stop asking, and so the cycle continues. Look at what you focus your attention on. Was that interaction really negative? Did my friend really look at me funny, or was it neutral or even positive? In a world where we use emojis to convey emotion, it’s no wonder we are forgetting how to read faces.

What actually happened during this interaction? What did your friend say? Did you add extra meaning to their words? Maybe they were stressed about some personal issue. Are you assuming the worst about others’ intentions? Do you assume others don’t want you around? Try to start giving people the benefit of the doubt. Can you risk being open and vulnerable again? Watch if you’re pushing others away preemptively to protect yourself.

Johann Hari found that there is scientific evidence for nine factors that cause depression and anxiety. According to him, two of them are biological – your genes can make you more susceptible to depression, and there are real changes in the brain that begin when you become depressed that make it harder to get out.

The nine causes are as following:

  • disconnection from meaningful work,
  • other people,
  • meaningful values,
  • childhood trauma,
  • status and respect,
  • the natural world,
  • a hopeful or secure future
  • genes and
  • brain changes.

If you feel unable to solve your loneliness yourself, please reach out and talk to a friend or professional. It’s a sign of courage, not weakness. In this uber-connected society, we find ourselves more secluded than ever. Reach out! Find meaningful work, friends and social connections, and you’ll soon find you’re living a happier, more meaningful life.
“Under the shelter of each other, people survive.”

Helpful information

If you need help please talk to friends, family, a GP, therapist or one of the free confidential helpline services. [For a full list of national mental health services see yourmentalhealth.ie.]
Samaritans on their free confidential 24/7 helpline on 116-123, by emailing [email protected]
Pieta House National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 or email [email protected] – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement) or text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)
Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

Laura Kelly-Walsh
BA (Hons) J + VM
Dip. Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy

Phone: +353 1 2100 600
297 Beechwood Court
Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, A94 N726