Do you know that feeling lonely is injurious to health? We all feel lonely at some point or the other, but for millions of people across the globe loneliness has become chronic. Loneliness epidemic is the new buzzword in the most connected time in history.
Today a majority of Americans are lonely according to Cigna’s survey of 20,000 adults in the U.S. One out of every two adults irrespective of gender or race feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Around 27% of the survey participants were found to hardly feel that there is anyone who really understands them and 36% of them reported that they have no one to turn to at times of need. What’s more shocking is that the youngest adults (aged 18-22) were found to be loneliest whereas the oldest adults aged 72 and above were least lonely.
Another 2018 survey from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that more than two in ten adults in the United Kingdom (23%) say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated.
Chronic loneliness is a very damaging state of mind but this human emotion has no single cause. It is unique for each individual!
A child unable to make friends in school may be feeling lonely. On the other hand, an old lady may feel a different sort of loneliness after the death of her spouse. People living alone in a new city or in their apartment may or may not be lonely. On the other hand, you may feel lonely, even when surrounded by people. Whether the house you live in is 500sq ft or 5000 sq ft, loneliness is the same. Confused?
What exactly is loneliness?
According to Cacioppo, Fowler, and Christakis (2009), Loneliness is feeling lonely more than once a week. It’s a state of mind where you want human contact but due to an unpleasant state of mind, you fail to connect with other people. In short, loneliness is feeling alone and isolated.
What Arthur H. Brand, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, FL, found from his practice is that loneliness is not a clinical disorder. It is different from more serious feelings of isolation and alienation, but it can be a sign of deeper psychological issues. He says that loneliness may be a temporary feeling but feelings of isolation/alienation may arise from withdrawal from relationships, rejection by others or can be the result of chronic illness.
There are various external and internal causes of feeling lonely including –
- Physical isolation
- Disturbed family relationships such as divorce
- Death of a loved one
- Feeling of worthless and low self-esteem
- Psychological issues like social anxiety or depression
Loneliness is a vicious cycle
The more we experience social isolation, the more we feel lonely and threatened which force us to seek more isolation, which in turn amplifies the feeling of loneliness.
Do you know that pain of chronic illness is highly detrimental to your health?
What researchers are saying about loneliness and its impact on our health
Research shows that chronic illness severely impacts our brain health. Several studies have shown an association between loneliness and an increase in risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Long-term feelings of loneliness can lead to negative thinking, self-doubt, poor decision-making skills, concentration issues, and eventually depression.
Loneliness is controlled by the brain according to researchers. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee conducted some lab experiments between 2000 and 2005 and found that loneliness declines executive control.
Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia experimented with multiple generations of mice. Initially they were kept in large enclosures that allowed them to play and grow up with other mice. When they reached adulthood, some of these animals were transferred to a typical shoebox cage, subjecting them to social isolation. After the month of isolation, the researcher compared the changes in the brain (mainly sensory cortex). It was found that overall size of nerve cells, or neurons, shrunk by about 20% and was steady for three months as the mice remained in isolation. Also there was broken DNA and reduction in a protein called BDNF that triggers neural growth.
John Cacioppo (founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience) and Steve Cole (genetics researcher at the University of California) worked together on various loneliness studies and found that loneliness is highly toxic to health and the level of toxicity is startling. According to them, social isolation is the strongest social risk factor of loneliness.