How to beat loneliness
We’re often quick to assume that only older generations suffer with loneliness, when in fact it’s a widespread problem. Loneliness affects more of those under 75 than over, and thanks to social distancing measures, more of us have had a taste of what it can feel like recently. A government survey conducted in the first month of lockdown found that nearly a third of us believed our wellbeing had been impacted by feeling lonely. And while Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages have their place for checking in with friends and family, it’s important to remember that facile digital ties can’t substitute real connections – but there’s even more to it than that.
Perception is everything
Scientists argue that loneliness is subjective, and not the same as social isolation, which is perhaps why the government survey found rates of chronic loneliness (around 5%) were similar to pre-lockdown. ‘It’s a common misconception that it’s only possible to feel lonely if you are actually “alone”, so not surrounded by a lot of people,’ says Angie LeRoy, a post-doctoral research fellow at Rice University in Houston, Texas. ‘People who are socially isolated can feel lonely, but they can also not feel lonely. Loneliness is really the perception of the quality of our social connections to others.’
The late loneliness researcher John Cacioppo pioneered the theory of objective vs perceived isolation. He argued that whether you actually have meaningful social connections is irrelevant, what’s important is whether you feel you have them. This explains why some of us crave solitude – if we’re happy in the knowledge that our social connections are strong and meaningful, time spent physically alone is no big deal. But the opposite can also be true. Cacioppo used the ‘classic billionaire case’ – someone who is surrounded by people wanting to be their friend, but in the billionaire’s eyes, none of these connections are important or effective, because they’re motivated by material gain.
‘It’s that idea of feeling lonely in a crowded room,’ says LeRoy. ‘It might look like someone has a large social network, but in fact they feel alone because they perceive that there’s not anyone in that room with whom they have a quality connection.’
Feeling lonely will do more than make you feel a bit blue. Cacioppo and his team found that loneliness decreases the effectiveness of sleep, and tracked negative effects on the immune system. Studies have also found links with increased blood pressure, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and inflammation. ‘These days, loneliness is being talked about as more predictive of certain types of diseases than smoking,’ says LeRoy. Her own research found that those who considered themselves lonely presented worse symptoms of the common cold than those who didn’t. ‘We found that having fewer people in your social network didn’t predict cold symptoms as loneliness did. This again emphasised the importance of your perception of your relationships.’
Loneliness also acts on the same parts of the brain as physical pain – morphine and the American drug Tylenol (which contains paracetamol) have even been found to lessen the distress of social separation. And it’s no accident that loneliness hurts. From an evolutionary standpoint, it acts like any other pain – warding us off one course of action and towards one yielding a greater chance of survival. The stab of loneliness would have been a reminder to re-join the pack, rather than risk fiercer pain when facing a predator alone. ‘Feeling lonely is actually doing us a favour, because it’s telling us we need to reconnect with others, that we’re not getting this fundamental need to belong fulfilled,’ says LeRoy.
The primal roots of loneliness explain why its effects are felt not just as sadness, but also as a personal threat. Cacioppo described a perceived sense of social connectedness a ‘scaffold for the self’ – damage the scaffold, and the rest of the self begins to crumble. This is where our primitive instincts betray us: once our fight-or-flight system is engaged, we’re more likely to lash out than seek social connections – counterintuitive indeed.
‘People who are already feeling lonely might then perpetuate a disengagement with others going forward, particularly if it’s a case of chronic loneliness,’ says LeRoy. ‘This might play out as feeling burdensome, or that you’re a downer.’ Cacioppo described this as the brain kicking into ‘self-preservation’. As one experiences loneliness, the sense of vulnerability that comes with it decreases your empathy and compassion. As social skills decline, lonely people are likely to pay more attention to negative signals from others, interpreting rejection where it isn’t intended. This negative feedback loop is what makes chronic loneliness so frustrating, and advice such as ‘just join a club’, so useless.
What’s the solution?
Cacioppo found that finding one’s way back to social belonging relies on reciprocity. So while seeing a therapist may have some benefit, we need mutual protection – just sounding off won’t foster a rich reciprocal bond. While an easy fix is elusive, these tips can help.
Admit it As is the case with many psychological issues, accepting that you feel lonely is the first step on the road to recovery. ‘Loneliness is a shared experience,’ says LeRoy. ‘It’s OK to talk about it and it’s OK to reach out.’ As stigma reduces, researchers hope sufferers will be more confident in coming forward.
Get creative According to health researcher Jeremy Nobel, a good way to foster meaningful engagement is through creative arts and activities. It helps us connect without talking about ourselves, while allowing a new medium of expression.
Retrain your brain Cacioppo encouraged his subjects to understand when their brain went into self-preservation mode, then retrained them in reciprocal communication. Notice how loneliness changes the way you read voices, eyes and posture, and try to be more discerning. It’s not easy and won’t come quickly – but with time, you’ll start to shed the unconscious bias that limits intimacy.
Try social resilience training This is the second step in Cacioppo’s solution. Make an effort to express gratitude, do something nice for someone without expecting anything in return and share good news with others. Identify behaviours that reinforce loneliness and replace them with more positive ones.