Understanding Loneliness - & No, its not the same as being Alone!

Loneliness. We’ve heard of a lot of people speaking out about feeling lonely from time to time, and this has only increased during the pandemic as people found themselves cut off from peers, loved ones and their social networks. While loneliness is no stranger to us, the conversations around it are.



Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is complex to understand and painful to cope with. We are all too familiar with those feelings which accompany loneliness - the low feeling which makes us question ourselves and casts a self-doubt on our sense of belonging at times. What we don’t look at very often is that the feeling of loneliness can have significant impacts on our overall wellbeing and Mental Health. The pandemic has further shown us that we can all feel lonely, and this feeling is not just something which is limited to the elderly and this has also caused a shift in the discourse around loneliness. This piece will throw more light on that along with looking at throwing more light on the concepts of being alone/ isolated as opposed to feeling lonely, because often these concepts are misunderstood or used interchangeably, more so in recent times as the world faced unprecedented lockdowns due to the Coronavirus pandemic which made social distancing and isolating part of our routine.


At the outset, it is imperative to make a distinction between loneliness and isolation -these are not the same. People can be isolated from others (alone) yet not feel lonely, and there may be other situations where they might be surrounded by other people and yet may still find themselves feeling lonely. Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact and also refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships. It’s defined as feeling alone or separate from others, or as feeling empty. Loneliness is never desired and lessening these feelings can take a long time. Loneliness, is more about feeling a sad sense of solitude in the world. It brings to mind the phase, “alone in a crowded room.” Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind can make it more difficult to form connections with other people. Isolation on the other hand is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have (t is more about quantity and not quality of relationships). To overcome feeling alone and isolated, a person may choose to surround themselves with more people, but loneliness is not that easy to get over. While it can also help to understand that isolation can lead to loneliness and loneliness can lead to isolation, it is also possible that both may also occur at the same time. To put a little more simply, while isolation is more of a physical state, loneliness is more emotive.


Now let us consider some of the Mental Health implications of loneliness. While loneliness can accompany depression, anxiety, and many addictions and phobias, it can also induce some of these conditions. Too much time alone has been shown to impact cognitive development in young people and lead to poor health habits. Sometimes feeling lonely for a long time can make people feel that taking care of themselves isn’t worth the effort, and they may give up eating well, exercising or taking care of their wellbeing. People who are lonely experience emotional pain. Losing a sense of connection and community can change the way a person sees the world. Someone experiencing chronic loneliness may feel threatened and mistrustful of others. The emotional pain they experience has the potential to activate the same stress responses in the body as physical pain as well. Loneliness can also lead to increased risk-taking behaviour, poor decision-making, decreased memory and learning, risk of antisocial behaviour, disrupted sleep patterns, increased stress levels, increased alcohol or drug abuse, altered brain function and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts or behaviour. There are also research studies which show that prolonged loneliness is associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline.


There are a few things which we can do during these times which can help us to cope better and to take care of our physical and mental wellbeing. First, it’s important to take care of yourself. Try exercising, eating healthy, getting enough sleep (7 to 9 hours), and pursuing activities you enjoy to help manage stress and soothe you. It’s also important to stay active and connect with others. People who engage in meaningful, productive activities they enjoy with others feel a sense of purpose and this can help foster meaningful connections as well. You may also want to try to schedule in time to connect to people whose company gives you joy and reach out to them. Another thing which can be helpful is volunteering as this helps to connect with individuals with a similar interest and mission as you and can give a sense of community and fulfilment. It can also help to be aware and to recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change. Additionally, it helps to also understand the effects of loneliness on your life, both in terms of the physical and mental repercussions on us. Another coping technique can be around assessing the quality of your current relationships, especially if you feel lonely around other people. It really is possible to feel lonely in a crowd. If you already have plenty of people in your life and still feel lonely, you might want to consider the quality of those interactions. What does the time you spend with others look like? If you simply exist together without really connecting, your interactions probably won’t fulfill your social needs. Lastly, engage in positive self-talk and try to recognise those negative spirals which try pull you down during those moments of despair and loneliness.


Remember, no one is exempt from feeling lonely at times. We all get lonely and feel that feeling creeping up on us, even when we might be surrounded by others. Always remember that it’s ok to not feel ok, and loneliness is something which we can address through seeking help from Mental Health professionals as well in case we find it hard to cope with. Not addressing prolonged loneliness can negatively impact both physical and mental wellbeing. Ignoring it will not provide us with any solutions. You are not alone and there is never shame in asking for help.


 

Written by: Vedica Podar

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June, 2021