In a lonely place

In a society that places ever more stress on self-reliance, it seems that one of the hardest things to admit is that we feel lonely. Mark Brown explores just what loneliness is and what we can do about it.

Feeling lonely is something that all of us experience from time to time. It might hit us during the first few weeks of a new job, or when we move to a new place. It might hit us when we haven’t seen the people we love and value for a while or when we feel that there is no one around who understands us. It might hit us when something takes us out of the loop of the life we’re used to, leaving us with far less time or opportunity to be around people.

We all know that being around people whom we value and who value us is good for our mental wellbeing. But is there something more to it? What do we mean when we say we feel lonely and what can we do about it? Is loneliness the same for everyone? How does loneliness affect us?

What is loneliness?

Humans are social animals. We’ve got to where we are now because we tend to stick together. Even though we all differ greatly from each other in how much time we need to spend with others, we all get something out of interacting with other people and just doing that human thing of being sociable.

Loneliness is the feeling of being on our own. For some loneliness is the experience of being ‘alone in a crowd’, of not having any interactions with people that feel meaningful or enriching, or not having any interactions at all. For others it’s the feeling of not being understood or of not fitting in.

Interaction with other people is a funny thing. We don’t really know what it is we need from other people until we are aware that we aren’t getting it. We could say that loneliness is feeling that gap.

In 1973, US sociologist Robert Weiss divided loneliness into two categories; emotional isolation and social isolation. Emotional isolation is what we might call inner loneliness where despite having what might look to others like a good set of relationships with a range of people like family, partners, friends and colleagues we still don’t feel as if we are getting the sense of connection that we need. Social isolation is when we don’t have many relationships with people at all. That’s the loneliness that comes from not seeing anyone we know or get on with on a regular basis, the feeling of ‘I haven’t spoken to anyone for days.’

Fiona has found it difficult to get others to understand her experiences of loneliness: “I try to tell people but loneliness is not something they have much sympathy for,” she says. “Loneliness aches inside me, making me feel alone and unimportant. But they just say ‘I would love time to myself, the kids/work/extension keep me busy, you should take advantage of it!’ or “Are you still suffering from depression? You have been like that for ages now, you really should get out!’”

Who gets lonely?

It’s often difficult for us to admit to feeling lonely. In a society that puts so much emphasis on self-reliance and getting on with things, it feels like a defeat or failure to say ‘I feel lonely’. When it’s so obvious that meaningful contact with other people is so important, admitting that we don’t have it when we need it is very difficult. Everyone else seems to be getting along fine, no one else seems to be having problems, so why is it just me?

In May this year, the Mental Health Foundation published a report called ‘The Lonely Society?’ which looks at ways of understanding loneliness, the effects that it has on us and the ways that we might begin to change a society where, according to their research, four in ten of us (42%) say that we have felt depressed because we felt alone. According to the report’s survey of 2256 adults, one in 10 of us say that we feel lonely often (11%) and a similar amount of people say that they don’t have the company they need.

People of all ages and from all backgrounds can experience loneliness. Circumstances that can test our ability to deal with loneliness include major transitions or changes such as moving home or job, bereavement, divorce or separation, the arrival or departure of family members. Any situation that cuts down our interaction with people can leave us feeling lonely, like unemployment, ill health or old age. In fact, any situation where we feel like we don’t fit in or feel unwelcome can increase our feelings of loneliness.

While some people may be more likely to experience loneliness, it has the potential to pose a problem for any of us.

Why do we feel lonely?

One of the odd things about loneliness is that it can actually make it more difficult to form the relationships with people that you need. When we are lonely, our body tries to remind us that we need to be around other people, making us feel physically threatened. It is emerging that while loneliness is a common experience, it’s the length of time that we feel lonely that has the biggest impact on our health and wellbeing.

According to ‘ A Lonely Society?‘, having meaningful face to face relationships with people increases production of the neuropeptide, oxytocin, which acts as a hormone connecting with organ systems and a neurotransmitter that signals with the brain and throughout the autonomic nervous system. Some research has shown that having more oxytocin increases our ability to read faces, increases feelings of trust and empathy and reduces fear or anxiety. If this is true, then being around people we like and get on with actually increases our ability to make more relationships with others.

When we lack the meaningful contact we need, we are more susceptible to stress and our bodies don’t work as well as they could. When this lasts for a long time, it becomes harder for us to swallow the feelings associated with loneliness and get on with the things we need to do. This can begin to affect how we read social signals from other people, making us more likely to read the actions of others as unfriendly, judgemental or harmful. All of this mixed together can make us feel out of place, worried, paranoid about what others might think about us and sad or needy.

In fact, when we get to the point where loneliness becomes more than just a passing sensation, it can make it even harder to make the contact with people that we know we need, creating a spiral where the lonelier we are, the more isolated we become.

Fiona is aware of this pattern. “I don’t know the difference anymore between the loneliness and depression,” she says. “They feel the same to me. When no one comes around to visit I feel they don’t think I exist and the loneliness eats me up and the depression creeps back in where I might have been able to pick myself up if I hadn’t been lonely.”

In an interview for ‘The Lonely Society? ‘ Jacqueline Olds, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University says: “When people feel lonely, a ‘stepping back’ occurs. They start to send out signals, often non-verbal ones, telling other people to ‘leave me by myself, I don’t need you, go away’. They feel shame that they are different from everyone else and they get stuck in this ‘stepped back’ position… This entrenched position makes it harder and harder to interact with others.”

Loneliness and wellbeing?

As you might imagine, loneliness can have big effects on our mental health. As Jacqueline Olds says: “People who are completely isolated can risk losing their minds because they have no one to help them get a perspective. There’s an interesting interplay between loneliness and serious psychiatric conditions, such as paranoia, anxiety and depression.”

As Lyn Jenkins discusses on page 9, having a mental health difficulty can make us feel more frightened of opening up to others, and can make even the most well connected of us feel like the odd one out. This leads to whatever feelings of isolation or loneliness we have making our difficulties even more difficult to overcome.

Sophie describes her depression as “like finding myself isolated from the rest of the world by bullet-proof glass. The sense of isolation and loneliness is compounded by my complete inability to connect and communicate effectively with people. I am completely detached.”

Jacqueline Olds feels that many people find it difficult to separate their mental health difficulties, and that in fact most find it easier to talk about their mental health needs than they do about loneliness: “We found it was very difficult for our patients to talk about their isolation, which seemed to fill them with deep shame. We found they were far more comfortable saying they were depressed than lonely. The lonely word was determinedly avoided.”

This chimes with Sophie’s experience: “The truth is, I can rationalise my depression. A chemical imbalance, genetic pre-disposition is responsible, but I can’t rationalise my loneliness in the same way,” she says. “I keep people at arms length, when I want to do the opposite – I want to be held, but my loneliness – which fuels my depression – and my need for self-preservation, require me to be watchful. Only courage allows me to break this cycle.”

According to ‘The Lonely Society’, 30% of us would be embarrassed to admit to feeling lonely. This was higher amongst younger people (42%) compared to 30% of people aged 35-54 and 23% of those over 55.

I feel lonely, what can I do?

So, having read this article you’re now thinking: ‘right – I recognise that I’m lonely, what do I do now?’ In many ways that’s the question that whole industries and shelves of self help books claim to be able to answer for you.

In the abstract, the answer seems simple: find more people with whom you can get on. The answer in practice is more complicated.

The best way of meeting people with whom you can find the interaction that you need is to find something in which you can become involved. This can be anything where you have a shared sense of endeavour with other people, of being ‘in it together’. It might be joining a local group, volunteering with a local community organisation, finding a religious place of worship to attend or even finding a new job. Doing something together with people maximises the chance that you’ll be able to feel that you have something in common.

While some people think that it’s things like the internet that are making us more lonely, others feel that internet brings new opportunities for meeting people. In fact, according to ’The Lonely Society?‘ two thirds of us say technology helps us to keep in touch with people with whom we might otherwise lose touch.

For Jacqui, it was a combination of accepting her illness and using the internet that really changed things for her. “Since I was diagnosed with depression I have become much less lonely and met lots of new people,” she says. “I was good at avoiding people and staying at home. But this came with spending most of my time on the internet, and I found new friends. There are a lot of us out there who aren’t quite well, and it is so reassuring to talk in a safe environment. I was invited to events, and I sometimes went, and people understood when I had to cancel.

“I tried to be open with my eight or ten closest friends. When I was most ill and couldn’t cope with meeting up or talking on the phone, I emailed them all to let them know what was going on. And they were wonderful.”

If these steps sound too difficult to undertake alone, ask your GP, health professional or local advice centre about befriending services or look for organisations that provide specific help for people who feel isolated. There will probably be more of these in your area that direct their services to those who are over 55, but many places will have drop-in services for people like parents or people experiencing mental health difficulties.

So there you, the way to combat loneliness is to find situations to be around people. But, it isn’t as simple as that, is it? First, you have to do a little bit of thinking about how you’re going to approach this loneliness thing. There’s nothing worse than turning up somewhere so worried that you won’t be able to talk to anyone that you in fact make sure that you won’t be able to talk to anyone.

As Lyn Jenkins discusses elsewhere in this issue, you have try to unlearn some of the negative things that you might have learned about how people might react to you. Very few people have the ability to drop into a new situation and instantly feel at home. Getting to know people takes time and the more you can give people the benefit of the doubt and let them get to know you, the more chance you’ll have of finding people who will be able to respond to you in the way that you’d want. Feeling ready to respond to other people in a kind and friendly way helps them to do the same for you.

Finding people to help you feel less lonely isn’t an instant thing, it’s a process. It’s easy to feel like it’ll never work, but as we’ve seen, that’s the effect that loneliness has on us.

All research cited in this article is referenced in ‘The Lonely Society?’ Published by the Mental Health Foundation and available from:

This feature first appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of One in Four magazine

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