Loneliness, A Bodily Function

A perspective.

Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual, if you feel lonely you are lonely. Whether you are a shy person, an extrovert, single, or in a relationship we can all feel lonely. Money, fame, power, beauty, social skills, a great personality, nothing can protect us against loneliness because it’s in our biology.

Loneliness is a bodily function like hunger; just how hunger makes us pay attention to our physical needs, loneliness makes us pay attention to our social needs. Millions of years ago our survival depended on being part of a group, forming relationships and collaborating with others to achieve goals such as hunting for food and gathering fire wood to keep warm, this is when it became part of our biology.

Our body cares about our social needs because it wants to avoid social pain, this is the pain that comes from feelings of isolation, rejection or abandonment. Pain of this kind is an early warning system to get us to focus on our social needs.

As the world has developed, populations have grown, small towns have become large cities we more and more have lost touch with human connections and close relationships. Large numbers of people have had to migrate for work and school, migration has broken families apart, we sit behind phone screens showing people what we feel will impress them so we get enough likes to build our self-esteem to enable us to feel socially accepted, we escape reality by getting lost in cyber worlds playing games with people we have never met. As the world’s population grows there has become more competition for jobs and school places, this means longer working hours as people try to stay ahead of the game so to speak, but in the process become isolated from the world outside of the formal institution where we are playing roles, conforming to titles and carrying out duties prescribed to us.

For some people, the more time we spend on our own the harder it becomes to go out and connect with others, we find ourselves feeling anxious and would rather avoid those feelings, so begins a vicious self-sustaining cycle. The effects of social pain (loneliness) can develop into actual physical symptoms, such as headaches and sore stomachs which re-enforce our need to stay home or away from people. This can lead us to become more self-centred as we try protect ourselves from the physical pains. People may begin to interpret this as being unfriendly, cold or arrogant and so they start staying away from us which furthers our sense of  loneliness and gives us evidence that we aren’t liked and don’t belong, so our self-esteem drops and we develop more defence mechanisms and coping strategies (such as drug and alcohol use).

Long-term loneliness can put us at risk of physical conditions such as heart attacks, stroke and high blood pressure but importantly it can also be the trigger or result in mental health problems.

How loneliness can show its presence

Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but long periods of loneliness or social isolation can have a negative impact on our physical, mental and social health. Some signs include:

  • Physical symptoms – aches and pains, headaches, illness or worsening of already existing medical conditions
  • Negative feelings – feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or thoughts about suicide
  • Mental health risk – increased risk of depression, anxiety, panic attacks
  • Low energy – tiredness or lack of motivation
  • Sleep problems – difficulty getting to sleep, waking frequently or sleeping too much
  • Eating problems – loss of appetite, increased appetite, sudden weight gain or loss
  • Substance use – Increased consumption of alcohol, smoking, medication or drug use

Is loneliness a mental health problem?

Feeling lonely isn’t in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Having a mental health problem can increase your chance of feeling lonely, and long term feelings of loneliness can increases your risk of developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

What to do

Some people experience deep and constant feelings of loneliness that come from within and do not disappear, regardless of their social situation or how many friends they have. We are living in the most connected time in human history and yet great numbers of us feel isolated. Here are a few things to go through if you are struggling with loneliness;

1. Recognise that you feel lonely but know you are not alone in the experience. Know that loneliness is a feeling, don’t confuse it with thinking you are an outcast or unwanted or a loser.   

2. Get curious. Ask yourself questions. Is it situational loneliness or chronic loneliness? Have you intentionally or accidentally isolated yourself? Write down your self-deflating thoughts when it comes to loneliness. What are your loneliness habits? Do you really want to change or is loneliness serving a purpose in your life at the moment?

3. Stop comparing yourself with others or looking at others and wanting them to fix your feelings.

4. Look at the connections you already have, what is right in-front of you? Ideally, look up from your phone or computer screen.

5. Look for a volunteer programme and spend time giving back to the community.

6. Be persistent in your efforts, whether it is joining a group or seeing a friend once a week, it may seem uncomfortable and exhausting at first but don’t give in. Challenge the assumptions and feelings that tell you to give up and resign yourself to a life of loneliness, show up, be curious, have no expectations and keep asking yourself questions about the experiences you have.   

7. See loneliness as a message from your body, it’s not intentionally trying to hurt you, it’s trying to motivate you to take a step towards connecting with others and building of friendships.

8. Talk about it. Find a mental health care service, like the Friendship Bench, or someone you feel you can trust and won’t judge you or minimise your feelings. Loneliness can sometimes come with feelings of shame and embarrassment, the more we start to talk about these feelings and why we feel them the less they control us.