Everyone gets lonely at some point in their lives. Loneliness is a very human reaction to feeling isolated or cut off from the ones we care about. Sometimes loneliness can occur after a loss, such as a breakup or a loved one passing away.
But what happens when this feeling of loneliness doesn’t subside?
Currently, 36% of Americans say they often feel extreme loneliness, and 61% of this number are young people. While chronic loneliness isn’t defined by a set period of time, it’s characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being isolated or cut off from other people.
This feeling can even be present in someone who spends a lot of time outdoors or at social events. Loneliness doesn’t just come in the form of physical isolation; it can also be mental. Some individuals can be sitting in a crowded room and still feel distant and removed from the people around them. In other words, loneliness is a very subjective experience.
What Is Loneliness?
Loneliness is just as much a bodily function as hunger or pain. While hunger indicates that we need to eat something soon or pain indicates that we need to stop touching that hot pan, loneliness shows us we crave social interaction and validation.
Our bodies evolved to care about our social requirements just as much as our physical ones. In the days when we still hunted for food, our social groups and the ability to fit into those social groups were a great indicator of how likely we were to survive. Despite how intelligent individual humans are, we understood that teamwork and pooling resources would allow us to survive more easily.
Many individuals think the greatest threats to our ancestors were environmental; however, in reality, it was social exclusion, as this meant they were more likely going to die alone in the wilderness.
In order to avoid this, humans became more socially aware of each other’s feelings, and social pain was introduced into the human experience. In short, social pain is the spark that ignites feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s a signal from our body that we need to find our social group to thrive.
Despite how easily we can survive on our own, the social pain that we have evolved to experience still triggers when we feel as though our group has abandoned us.
The Dangers of Chronic Loneliness
Loneliness is one of the most unhealthy mental health disorders that can drastically affect our minds and our bodies. Continued loneliness will make us age faster, develop more serious diseases easier, weaken our immune systems, and speed up cognitive decline (particularly in people with Alzheimer’s).
Some have also equated chronic loneliness to extreme obesity or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
What makes loneliness even worse is our brain’s reaction to the initial trigger. As we’ve evolved to feel social pain when we’re separated from our group, we’ve also learned to become hyperaware of threats if that event occurs. This is due to us needing to survive on our own once we’re separated from the group.
This same survival mechanism activates today, meaning that when we’re lonely, we begin to identify anything as a possible threat, even the kindness of others. We become even more attuned to social cues while becoming worse at interpreting them correctly, making chronic loneliness a self-sustaining loop.
The Most Connected Time in Human History
In present times you can communicate with someone halfway across the world in seconds via the internet. You can play video games with strangers in different time zones, facetime with your parents who live four hours away and even sign up to social networking sites for free and chat with millions of users worldwide.
And yet, loneliness has only increased alongside this technological revolution.
The apps and services that were designed to increase our connectivity and facilitate social interaction on a global scale seem to have only pushed us further into isolation. They’ve become anti-social networks.
Many questions remain about how these apps have led to people feeling isolated despite having 24/7 access to their friends and loved ones. Some theorize that these networks trigger a fear of missing out (FOMO) in younger people due to the sheer volume of content showing others engaging in various lifestyle activities. Others fear that cyberbullying triggers a fight-or-flight response despite victims not being in immediate danger.
Regardless, it is a well-established psychological principle that face-to-face interaction has numerous benefits for our mental and physical health. While social media allows us to interact with one another, those interactions are funnelled through a predetermined style and format, making them hollow. For example, liking a post instead of speaking to a friend in person and telling them proud you are of them for their accomplishment.
What Can You Do?
It’s important to build an awareness of our own bodies and mindset throughout the day. One of the easiest ways to end feelings of isolation and loneliness is to learn how to recognize these feelings early on.
Meditation has been known to help individuals collect and categorize their thoughts at the end of the day. Its also been shown to reduce the effects of various mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. It can also be used to build a clearer picture of ourselves and understand whether we’re beginning to show cravings for social interaction.
You can’t eliminate or ignore negative feelings, but you can identify the cause and work from there. You can also self-examine and determine whether you’re focusing too much on negative interactions or misinterpreting the words of others and adding your own additional meanings on top of their words.
Even examining your own expectations of social interactions will reveal a lot about your current mental state and whether you’re trying to protect yourself from something that may never happen.
As mentioned above, when we feel lonely, we begin to identify threats and overreact to perfectly normal situations. If you are experiencing chronic loneliness, speak to someone. There’s no shame or stigma attached to seeking help and trying to develop an understanding of your own mindset and feelings. Loneliness can be the tip of an iceberg to a much deeper problem from your past. Mental health professionals will be able to guide you and provide a pathway to understanding and managing your feelings and developing healthier connections in the future.