How can we overcome loneliness?

 

How can we overcome loneliness?

 

Loneliness can be defined in a number of ways, but most specialists agree that it is an undesirable and hurtful emotion, and can impact both physical and mental wellbeing. It can reduce the quality of our sleep, increase our risk of heart disease, and reduce the effectiveness of our immune system. One study has even argued that loneliness “significantly increase[s] risk for premature mortality,” significantly more than other health factors.

A survey carried out in the United States which targeted adults aged 45 and over found that around one third of participants identified as “lonely”. Other surveys which focused on children and young adults also showed that a significant number of respondents between the ages of 17 and 25 also felt lonely. One study that became prevalent in the media claimed that men feel the loneliest at age 35. It is apparent that all ages are at risk of loneliness.

 

Acknowledge and react

John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, IL, is a loneliness specialist – he has studied why we experience it, how it affects us, and how we can cope with it.

In his TED talk “The lethality of loneliness”, Prof. Cacioppo states that he believes our society values self-sufficiency and individualism, which can lead people to become isolated and refuse to acknowledge loneliness.

“You don’t hear people talk about feeling lonely,” Prof. Cacioppo explains, “and that’s because loneliness is stigmatized, the psychological equivalent of being a loser in life or a weak person, and this is truly unfortunate, because it means we’re more likely to deny feeling lonely, which makes no more sense than denying we feel hunger, thirst, or pain.”

Prof. Cacioppo suggests that denial only exacerbates the feelings of loneliness, and can then lead on to people resorting to counterproductive strategies, for example, seeking further isolation. Therefore, he states, the first step is to acknowledge that we are feeling lonely.

“Second,” he continues, “understand what [loneliness] does to your brain, to your body, to your behaviour. It’s dangerous, as a member of a social species, to feel isolated, and our brain snaps into self-preservation mode. That brings with it some unwanted and unknown effects on our thoughts and our actions toward others.”

Once we are able to acknowledge our feelings and understand the impact they can have on our health and behaviour, Prof. Cacioppo suggests that we should act by forming and strengthening social connections.

“One can promote intimate connections by developing [the relationship with] one individual who’s trusted, in whom you can confide and who can confide in you,” he explains. “You can promote relational connectedness by simply sharing good times with friends and family” without any distractions.

Finally, “[C]ollective connectedness can be promoted by becoming a part of something bigger than yourselves,” so why not “consider volunteering for something that you enjoy”?

 

Lay off social media

Although social media could come to mind as a quick and easy solution to loneliness, studies have discovered that social media actually makes us more segregated and lonelier.

study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that social media users feel more isolated than those who did not spend much time using it.

Social psychologist Sherry Turkle has also argued that hyperconnectivity via social media makes us more distanced from each other in real life.

“We expect more from technology and less from each other, and I ask myself, ‘why have things come to this?’, and I believe it is because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable, and we are vulnerable, we’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy,” Turkle explains.

Rather than relying on social media, to prevent loneliness we must focus on strengthening bonds with family, friends, and community.

Psychologist Guy Winch suggests that we should face our fears and make the first move to connect or reconnect with others. He suggests that when we reach out to other people, we should send out positive messages and set a clear timeframe for a social event.

For example, saying “I miss you, why don’t we have coffee on Saturday?” will likely be more effective than “Hey, I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore.

Face to face contact is also preferable to online contact is that humans require physical touch in order to feel connected, according to Helena Backlund Wasling, of State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Sycaruse.

Simply holding a parent’s or child’s hand or hugging a friend can do great things for our mental health. Touch is also a tool for communication, and sends messages about our emotional state.

 

 

A pet may help

Studies have shown that pet owners can have better social and communication skills and participate in more community activities. Owning a dog can also help to reduce the risk of premature death, particularly among people who live on their own – the group who are at the highest risk of experiencing debilitating loneliness.

Not only are animals good conversation starters, caring for pets can discourage sedentarism and provide opportunities to meet new people.

It is not just dogs or cats that offer benefits – a 2016 study found that older adults who were offered crickets to care for as pets became less depressed and showed improved cognitive function within 8 weeks.

 

Rewrite the story

If you simply cannot change being alone and that causes you to feel lonely, you could attempt to turn the loneliness into solitude, which can be used to your advantage. When you are alone, you could turn it into an opportunity for “me time” so you can destress, and perhaps develop skills.

One study, co-authored by clinical psychologist Ami Rokach, suggests that “acceptance and reflection” can turn the impact of loneliness into a more positive attitude.

The authors define this approach as “using the opportunity of being by oneself and becoming aware of one’s fears, wishes, and needs as the most salient means of coping with loneliness.”

The team explain that we can avoid loneliness and the negative effects that come with it when we learn to accept solitude and use it to our own advantage.

“The results of the present study suggest that solitude (i.e., welcomed aloneness as opposed to loneliness) can aid in coping effectively with the pain of loneliness in that solitude stops attempts to deny loneliness, thereby promoting its acceptance as an existential and, at times, unavoidable human condition.”

In Addressing Loneliness, researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel suggest that mindfulness meditation could be used in this context to “reduce the subjective feeling of loneliness by reducing maladaptive cognitive functions”.

If you are alone and feel lonely, you may be able to combat this by making a cup of tea, put on some relaxing music, and enjoy your own company.

“Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it,” encourages Turkle in her TED talk.

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