Coping with feelings of loneliness

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is an emotional state that can occur in many different situations. In fact, some people will report that they feel lonely even if they have frequent contact with other people. A state of loneliness might come about, for example, because someone has chosen to shut themselves away or because others shun them in social situations. Many older people report loneliness is an issue for them as they get out and about from their home less often, especially if they also live alone. The emotional state of being lonely will often come about because people don't feel they are truly connecting with others, maybe only making superficial contact. Failing to communicate effectively is another sign that loneliness is at play.

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 Is loneliness the same as social isolation?

Although you might feel absolutely lonely if you suffer from social isolation, these two phenomena are not exactly the same thing. Social isolation is a situation you might be faced with if you cut yourself off from your community or choose a lifestyle that means contact with others is highly infrequent or fleeting. It can also occur when others deliberately make you feel isolated – a form of bullying or icing you out. However, social isolation does not necessarily mean you will feel lonely. Many people are, in fact, content to make the choice of living a solitary existence and find that it brings them more happiness. However, if the emotions associated with being lonely are felt, then this is considered to be loneliness.

What are the mental health effects of loneliness?

One of the big factors in depression is a having sense of loneliness. In fact, being lonely can lead you to develop depressive thoughts, too. What's more of a problem is that depressed people are often shunned by others which makes the feeling of loneliness worse. In short, it creates a vicious cycle that can be extremely difficult to get out of for a person suffering from depression. Other mental health issues associated with being lonely are poor sleep patterns, a sense of crisis or anxiety and a willingness to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. It is not always the case, but lonely people will often turn to alcohol or drug abuse as a means of temporarily lifting their spirits – something that also leads to a downward spiral of mental well-being.

Can loneliness have an impact on physical health?

Although research is still ongoing in this field, many people think that being lonely can lead to poor physical health outcomes. Some scientists have shown that certain blood chemicals are more abundant in lonely people, something that could lead to an increased likelihood of contracting heart disease, for example. Since loneliness is also commonly linked to depression, there is a big risk that a lonely person becomes less physically active too. A lack of motivation to get out of bed and let alone move around to do any sports and physical activity can lead to a damaging effects on your physical health. Loneliness could also, in some cases, make someone feel uncomfortable about joining groups of people or society as a whole as they might not feel like they fit in.

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How can you prevent loneliness?

A lot of people who are feeling lonely can alleviate their symptoms by joining a club or a group of some sort, whether it is online or a face to face situation. There are lots of workshops and courses happening, online and offline, that are open for anyone to join. It does not matter what the activity might be; perhaps you have a hobby like literature, music, or cooking, or any kind of sports-related activity, such as dance or yoga, for example. Simply mixing with others on a regular basis will lower the sense of loneliness anyone might feel. The feeling of belonging to a group is not to be underestimated as it can truly have a positive impact on someone's mental well-being. Pets and even robots that interact with you can help to deal with this emotional state, too.

What does loneliness do to the brain?

There are noticeable effects that prolonged periods of social isolation will have on the brain. Numerous studies – some of which have historically included self-isolation – have led to people suffering from a raft of undesirable effects that have come about through lonely lifestyles. When loneliness is said to be chronic – or long-term – the ill mental effects include anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the exact physiological links between being lonely and these sorts of mental health conditions are not yet fully understood, it is likely that the brain physically adapts to the lonely behaviour of people. Certainly, some recent research has suggested that social isolation will lead to the activation of certain dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons in the brain. This physical effect may account for why we often feel sad when we are lonely and vice versa.

Who does loneliness tend to affect?

Although there is a known problem of social isolation among geriatric people in much of the western world, not all of the evidence bears out the idea that it is only older people who suffer from feelings of loneliness. Yes, some older people will feel trapped in their own homes if they are less mobile than they used to be and cannot live as independently as they might prefer to. However, according to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, it is younger people who frequently report greater feelings of isolation than any other age group. Perhaps this is the case, or it might be that younger people are more inclined to admit to feeling lonely? Either way, as recently as 2018, British adults from the age of 16 to 24 were the most likely age group to report feeling lonely 'often or always'.

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Do genetics play a part in loneliness?

Genes do not cause loneliness. As previously mentioned, the feelings of being lonely come about through social isolation. However, it seems that behavioural traits can lead to some people being more isolated than others. For example, some people who embark on careers where they will be working on their own for long periods of time may choose such a path because of their personality type, something that may have a genetic link. In 2016, a genetic study into what it is to be lonely was carried out. It found that human genetics is a factor in social isolation. Consequently, people with certain genetic traits are simply more likely to end up being lonely. Of course, this is not a determining factor, but it means the chances of feeling lonely at some point are greater. The study quantified this by suggesting that people with certain genes were up to 27 per cent more likely to be lonely than the general population.

Can loneliness cause dementia?

Whether being lonely causes dementia or not is something that medical scientists have been trying to work out for decades. Certainly, some studies have found a link between the two states. People who are lonely have been found in some research to be as much as 20 per cent more likely to suffer from dementia than others. However, this does not necessarily mean that being lonely causes dementia. As you have already read, some brain changes occur when people are lonely for prolonged periods of time. One of these is that cognitive function tends to fall away as people interact with one another less. Therefore, it seems as though being more social and feeling less lonely will be a good way of staving off dementia. However, there is no way of determining the causal nature of social isolation. After all, there are many other risk factors associated with dementia, such as a lack of physical fitness, hearing loss and diabetes, to name but three.

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How do pets help to overcome loneliness?

Many people will find that owning a pet helps them to overcome feelings of social isolation. People who live on their own, for example, will find that owning a pet and caring for it helps them to feel needed and less lonely as a result. These days, there are numerous schemes for using animals in care settings to help people overcome their sense of aloneness. Although the vast majority of these pet therapy animals are dogs, other animals, such as cats, guinea pigs and even llamas, are used in certain settings to help treat lonely people. There have been several studies into pet ownership that go beyond mere companionship, however. Some of these have shown that enjoying the company of an animal can help to lower blood pressure and also provide a beneficial effect with things like cholesterol build up.

What is romantic loneliness?

Romantic loneliness is a term that refers to a psychological state whereby someone wants a romantic relationship with a partner but does not have one. Psychologists use the term to help people who have not yet found a long-term partner but who may not suffer from other forms of social isolation. In other words, it is a particular form of loneliness that relates to intimate and loving forms of human interaction. To be clear, it is possible to be romantically lonely despite having sexual partners. The term is used to distinguish between people who are in committed and loving relationships with their partners and people who do not enjoy such a relationship. In some cases, people who are in unstable or failed relationships are said to be romantically lonely even though they may still live with their partner.

Can technology be used to beat loneliness?

The use of technology to try and stop people from feeling lonely has a long history. Almost as early as the invention of the telephone, that device was often marketed to people in remote parts of the world as a communication tool that would help to stave off social isolation. Since then, the digital age has allowed for ever greater levels of interactivity with people online. Nowadays, video calls augment the experience of interacting with someone else with whom we are not physically present. The rise of virtual reality technology is likely to boost the realism of such meetings still further. Moreover, there are numerous robotics firms that are focussed on using AI artificial intelligence systems to offer relief from social isolation, usually by interacting with people in a human-like manner in care home settings and so on.

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Loneliness in summary

It is important to remember that feeling lonely is an emotion that it is quite normal to feel from time to time during life. Even people who are seemingly popular and who have the support of others can feel lonely during their life even though they are not alone. Of course, feeling lonely is most often associated with social isolation. Cutting yourself off from others intentionally for a while can make you appreciate just how much you enjoy the social interactions of daily life. If it is something that goes on for too long, however, then it can lead to chronic loneliness, which, in turn, may have undesirable effects on the brain and people's wider mental health.

In order to combat social isolation, people around the world do lots of things. Joining clubs and volunteering groups is a great way of feeling less lonely, especially when the activities involved mean interacting with new acquaintances. Some people will look after a pet so that they feel less lonely. Just walking a dog is a great way of getting out and about and bumping into other people, for example. These days, technology also provides numerous ways of getting in touch with others in often much more meaningful ways than could have been possible even a few decades ago. That said, being lonely is something that many people report in modern life and – although it doesn't much fit the stereotype – it is younger adults who appear to be worst off in this regard. Therefore, many governments around the world now take having an increasingly lonely population more seriously than ever before as an issue of public health.

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