Author Sandro

29.09.2020 15:23

Why and How Do We Feel Lonely?

Cover picture: Khareba Kavtaradze

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“I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves” - this is how Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky responded when asked what he would like to tell young people. 

“Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself”, he added. “That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself, because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view”.

Thanks to the Coronavirus and new social distancing rules, in an unexpected, way millions are now free to follow this advice. But can they? 


The epidemic of loneliness

You either can’t socialize or have no one to connect with? Even when surrounded by people you still feel alone? You feel too much, but share too little? People either don’t listen to you or just wait for their turn to talk? And when you stay alone, there is little to no good you can tell yourself?

If you are familiar with these issues, congratulations! You definitely are not alone. Even if you think you are. Millions of people all around the world can definitely relate to this experience. 

For years, loneliness has been considered as one of the biggest problems of modern humans.  A 2018 Cigna survey of 20,000 people used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to determine that “Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).”  

It seems that the worldwide “epidemic of loneliness” has nothing to do with the quality of life. For example, Sweden, which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world is ahead of all European countries in terms of the number of lonely people.

However, the problem of loneliness is also acute in Germany and Great Britain. A special ministry was even created on the island a few years ago. In 2018 BBC has conducted a survey for 55 000 people in order to find out how and why we feel lonely. It questioned another misconception, as loneliness is often attributed to older people. Surprisingly, people who are 16-24 also commonly feel loneliness. 

Why do we feel lonely?

Connection is one of the basic and fundamental human needs and psychologists consider various factors: genetics, environment, affiliation to various vulnerable social groups.  

Researchers think our adverse reactions to being lonely are nature's way of motivating us to find a social group in order to survive.

According to a study published in “Perspectives on psychological studies”, people who “experience a low level of social support clearly feel more lonely than do carriers of that same allele who experience a high level of social support.” 

Loneliness is a psychological factor and, for sure, childhood experiences also can’t be ignored. 

Dr. Jonice Webb suggests: If parents ignore or criticize the child's feelings, he automatically begins to fence himself off from experiences in order to survive.

“As a child, you adapted to living in a family by learning to suppress emotions so not to burden your parents with them. But feelings are a kind of glue that binds people together and allows them to build meaningful relationships. Without them, it is difficult to build those deep and lasting emotional bonds that everyone needs ”, she thinks.

At the same time, psychologists suggest that it’s not about the amount of time we spend alone, what matters is HOW we feel about this. 

Austrian psychotherapist Alfried Längle speaks of another reason people can feel lonely. He explains that apart from relationships with the outside world, every person has a relationship… with himself. 

“If I don’t feel myself, if I don’t have feelings, if they are muted, then I am alone with myself. If I do not feel my body, my breath, my mood, my state of health, my fatigue, my joy, my pain - if I don’t feel all this, then I am not in a relationship with myself. Then I miss the fundamental, basic part of life.”


The impact of loneliness

Heart problems, risk of drug abuse, decreased memory, Alzheimer’s disease progression, depression, poor decision-making - these are few among many other risks caused by feelings of loneliness. 

In 2015 “Time” magazine published an article titled “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public Health Issue”, where Brigham Young University researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad suggested: “People who are both objectively isolated and subjectively lonely may be at the greatest risk of death”. Although she added that before jumping to conclusions, some data still needs to be collected.

However, the data collected by others also seems to be alarming.

Studies have found loneliness as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But some see even bigger consequences. According to psychologists, loneliness could trigger negative or even self-destructive thoughts. People very often blame themselves, for example, for a lack of social skills. In many societies and cultures, people get judged for being alone. It often turns into a stigma - some even tend to label lonely people as losers. Needless to say, such attitudes don’t encourage us to share what we feel.

According to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who spent years studying loneliness, “The absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain.”  

But it might get even worse. “Your Dopamine reward system is being hijacked”, explains psychologist Amily Banks to Vice. 

The brand new world

According to various studies, the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of loneliness in even more people. For example in Australia, where every second person now feels more lonely because of the Coronavirus. 

Under new circumstances, people who live alone may feel lonelier, even if they are quite comfortable without relationships and alone with themselves under normal circumstances.

Psychologists agree that forced isolation is quite a difficult experience, even for those who consider themselves an introvert and do not feel the need for daily close communication. The very absence of the opportunity to go out with people, to have a good time, to see friends can be depressing. Anxiety may increase: among other reasons (the pandemic, hard news and the risk of getting sick, of course, can be nervous), our psyche also reacts to the deprivation of contact with other people as a threat. 

In ordinary life, a person who works from home on an ongoing basis can compensate for the lack of communication and impressions after work: go to a bar, a movie, meet with loved ones, but nowadays it's really easy to get blamed for searching for company.

However, experts say that it is possible to cope with this condition - digitally connect with people who share the same interests, or the ones you used to hang out with. Also, remember that when it comes to human connections it's always quality over quantity. Besides, you are free to try taking online courses, or other digital activities.

However, now it’s more important than ever to take care of your mental health. If you are feeling isolated and may be experiencing symptoms of depression, do not feel ashamed to ask for help.



Illustrations: Shutterstock

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