The Epidemic of Loneliness and the price we pay
Ever found yourself surrounded by all the “right” people but feeling desperately alone. Perhaps you are currently in a relationship, that would appear perfect, but you have never felt lonelier than you do now. If this is true, then you may be among the millions of people who are suffering the effects of loneliness. It could be argued that loneliness is rapidly becoming the silent epidemic of this generation. It seems perverse that in this age of connectivity that the prevalence of loneliness has never been higher. To understand the impact of loneliness we first need to consider what it is. What is loneliness? Cacioppo (2009)i defined loneliness as, “perceived social isolation”. The experience of loneliness however is the anxiety or distress that one experiences, when you perceive that you are socially isolated. The gap between perception and reality is what makes it difficult to identify who may be a victim to its effects. Why does loneliness lead to and anxiety and distress? As humans we are genetically programed to be social beings. Researchersii suggest that for any organism to survive it’s needs to adapt to it’s environment. As part of this adaption our early ancestors realized that their chances of survival and the continuation of their offspring increased, if they formed social bonds, lived in groups and attempted to work together. In today’s language, you may remember your parents telling you that there is safety in numbers. Genetic coding and natural selection took care of passing this learned wisdom onto subsequent generations.iii Coded into our genes is the instinct to seek connection and the aversion to avoid isolation. Simply put connection translated into survival of the humane gene and isolation threatened extinction. As a result, humans have developed a highly sophisticated systems that drive us to seek connection and signal distress when there is the perception of social isolation. Ignoring the warnings signals Notice how most new cars today come with that annoying seat belt feature. Recently I was traveling a short distance and so chose to ignore the signal. To my surprise the further I drove the loader the sound became until eventually the sound was so over whelming that I simply put my seat belt on.
The experience of loneliness is not very different to my experience of motoring defiance. The stress that results from moments of social isolation may initially be mild but over time this stress turns to distress which depletes one’s coping resources. Research is suggesting that the stress from loneliness can be linked to compromised health, poor decision making and, in some instances, anti-social behavior. As the title of Bessel Van der Kolk book suggests, “the body keeps score”. When we fail to head the warning signs (as I did with my car alarm) the alarm gets increasingly louder until we reach a breaking point. This breaking point is physically evident when an individual’s body starts to manifest the stress symptomatically. Put simply they start to get sick. Self-fulfilling prophecy Have you ever been to a social gathering convinced that it’s going to be a terrible experience? You just know that you going to stand awkwardly in some corner of the room and no one is going to talk to you all evening. Notice how most times this is exactly what happens. It almost like you can predict it. When one enters into to a situation with a fear that you are going to be alone perhaps you are going into that situation conditioned to look for the danger in that environment. When seen through the lens of “no one will talk to me” everyone may appear aloof, judgmental and generally unwelcoming. Cacioppo, would suggest that these interpretations quickly become expectations, as loneliness turns the perfectly normal fear of negative evaluation into a readiness to fend of blows. So perhaps the problem is not the gathering, but the individual’s defensive hostility that they project to protect themselves against the fear of loneliness. A fear that is sadly confirmed when no one feels comfortable to approach them. The tragedy Those who are most lonely and by extension in the greatest need of social connection may find themselves stuck in cycle that keeps them from the very thing that could bring healing. This is evident in the number of adolescent and elderly that are dying from suicide year on year. It important to acknowledge that a number of these may be due to mental illness but an equally significant proportion is due to the inability of some to live in connectiveness. It is not that these individuals or perhaps you reading this article want to be alone, it just that you don’t know how to achieve connection. The therapeutic opportunity Regardless of the therapeutic modal that you practice they all have one thing in common which is that their effectives is rooted in the ability to make real and meaningful connection.
Dan Siegeliv described this connection. “Attunement is the authentic sense of connection, of seeing someone deeply, of taking in the essence of another person in that moment. When others sense our attunement with them, they experience “feeling felt” by us” The ability to make real human connection is not isolated to therapist this is gift and opportunity for any individual that chooses to stop long enough to truly see another human being. To see with complete acceptance and devoid of any judgement. Perhaps this is best understood in the IsZule greeting “Sawubona”. Simply interrupted as I see you. Meaning I see you as an individual. i John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley (Perceived Social Isolation and Cognition) ii Williams (Adaption and Natural Selection) iii Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) iv Daniel J. Siegel (The mindful Therapist)