What is Loneliness?
Loneliness refers to an overwhelming and profound feeling of being separate from those around us. This feeling has nothing to do with the number of people an individual is surrounded by in their life, but rather with personal expectations and their response to environmental factors.
Contrary to popular belief, people living alone are not always socially isolated and affected by loneliness. An American study into the subject found that although lonely people are more likely to experience health problems including anxiety, depression, crying spells and feelings of worthlessness; it is not associated with living alone. The study found that single people had more friends on average that people who lived with others and were less troubled by headaches, anger and irritability.
The study also found that lonely people responded in one of two ways: “sad passivity” where a person would spend a large part of their time sleeping, eating and crying; in “creative solitude”, the other response, the person overcomes loneliness through reading, listening to music, working on a hobby, studying, writing or playing a musical instrument. An alternative explanation for loneliness is boredom. Those who spend their time alone, creatively, have developed a way of coping with the experience and this enables them to feel calmer, happier and more creative.
The process of moving from dependence on others to independence is a normal part of human development. Throughout life we are also attempting to balance our need for intimacy with an acceptance of aloneness. Regardless of this, we all go through periods of difficulty associated with separation from others which may lead us to feel abandoned, unloved, insecure and anxious as part of growing up.
Factors associated with modern lifestyles, working practices and increasing divorce rates have made it easier for people move from place to place and making them more prone to feelings of loneliness.
Common Causes of Loneliness
There are degrees of loneliness and many causes -it is not a physical disease that can be easily diagnosed and treated: it is a state of mind and being. The term “loneliness” encompasses a range of experiences which can be categorised into 3 groups: circumstantial, developmental and internal.
Any type of change can trigger a feeling of loneliness which can have short term or long term effects upon an individual. For example moving home, job, or changes in relationships such as starting a family, divorce, family breakdown, domestic violence, bereavement, retirement or unemployment, are all considered to be contributory factors. The experience of hopelessness and futility is likely to be compounded if any of the lifestyle experiences referred to above, improved our quality of life, boosted our self esteem and gave us purpose and meaning.
Each stage of life we encounter brings with it changes in our inner and outer lives which can be both exciting and anxiety-provoking. Adolescence, young adulthood, thirty-something, mid life, menopause and old age are milestones that often bring with it, feelings of uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability. Although we may feel lonely as we are presented with life’s challenges and society’s expectations it is important to remember that these are phases that will pass.
Young people may feel lonely when they experience life changing events such as leave school or home, starting university and lose contact with established friendships, girlfriends or boyfriends. As we grow older, we are more likely to encounter being alone with older people in their 60 and 70s being able to make better adjustments to solitude than younger people, possibly because they are more accepting of themselves and who they are.
For older people, retirement, death of a spouse or close friends, can all lead to a sense of overwhelming sadness. In addition, the loss of independence through illness or disability, may contribute to social isolation if they once enjoyed social contact and participated in activities within their local community. People with caring responsibilities such as young children, older adults or disabled family members may also feel lonely.
Loneliness can also be the experience of people affected by mental illness, not only because of the stigma associated with the condition, but also because of the low self esteem and the sense of rejection they may experience. Social phobia is commonly felt by those suffering from mental illness and this is compounded by feelings of anxiety, worthlessness and guilt which can lead them to cut themselves off from families and friends who may not understand what they are going through.
Being treated as different by others because of our race, lifestyle, beliefs or upbringing can isolate us socially and lead to feelings of alienation. For some people the cause of loneliness may not be easy to identify. It may be a constant experience that appears unrelated life experiences and relationships. This profound loneliness may have its origins in painful experiences which the individual may be trying to forget, but manifest themselves in an enduring sense of loss and sadness. In some cases, this type of loneliness may lead to the individual cutting themselves off for fear of being hurt. In extreme cases, profound loneliness can so overwhelm an individual that it may lead them to have thoughts of suicide.
It is possible to overcome loneliness through a determined and positive approach. It is important to make time to reflect on the reasons for feeling lonely.
Learning how to feel comfortable and relaxed in your own company will be a useful first step.
Make time to focus on personal interests and enjoyable activities.
Those who find it difficult in social situations, may find it helpful to attend assertiveness or social skills training as this will help to build confidence.
Take small steps to get to know others without getting intensely involved in any one relationship.
Make the most of every opportunity to get involved with others through mutual interests or learning something new by joining a local club, attending adult education.
Volunteering is another way to meet others and make friends particularly when you have time to spare.
People experiencing loneliness due to emotional difficulties or mental illness may wish to consider talking to a counsellor to help them to explore and understand their problems in a safe environment.